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Moment that mattered: The Boston Marathon is bombed


I heard about the bombing of the Boston Marathon through Twitter, where I tend to hear most things first. But I wouldn’t say this was the norm – only a tiny percentage of the population use Twitter and the vast majority of people would have heard of the bombings through traditional media and watched the events play out there. But the fact remains that traditional media are no longer breaking these kinds of news stories and they are tripping over themselves trying to keep up with social media.

Boston really highlighted the way news reporting is done today. The potent combination of social media and 24/7 rolling news means that people expect to know things very, very, quickly. Journalists are expected to deliver instant analysis, instant commentary, instant context and get all the facts right all the time. Boston showed that that isn’t always possible: you cannot know everything instantly, and some huge mistakes were made trying to do so. This was particularly true in the reporting of potential suspects and arrests, with the wrong people named and misinformation spread by sources we’d usually trust.

In a sense, today’s journalists are doing what journalists have always done – they are trying to verify sources, filter information, edit what’s important. The difference now is that they are doing it all live. This is true both for TV and newspapers. It was only a few years ago that the Guardian started publishing stories online first and then amending as new facts came to light: now, along with televised rolling news, it is normal for people to watch a story unfold rather than hear about what happened afterwards.

Live blogs and ‘breaking…’ banners are the new front page, symbolically at least. In the old days you used to see something on the front page of a newsstand paper that grabbed your interest and now these breaking stories are the “come hither”, the hors d’oeuvre to whet your appetite. Newsrooms know this and are throwing everything they have at them.

News has always been theatrical, but now it’s moved from spectacle to participation. The audience expects and is expected to be involved through social media. With Boston this immersion reached new levels, from tearing strips off CNN because they got something wrong to users on trying to piece together the available information to find out who was responsible.

The witch hunt aspect of what Reddit users did, naming innocent people as suspects based on minimal evidence, was pretty horrible – although it’s no different to what mainstream media have been doing to people for a long time. I wasn’t surprised to see these accusations spilling into traditional reporting, with the New York Post publishing pictures of innocent people named on Reddit on its front page, and other names mentioned on the site being retweeted by respected journalists. There is so much pressure to move the story along now that it is almost inevitable.

If traditional media can no longer break news then its role becomes even more theatrical. It must sell the drama – but it mustn’t forget that it’s job is also to verify things and give people some context. I’m not sure whether audiences are still willing to give them the time to do that. Unfortunately the pace of news means people will continue to get hurt and mistakes are going to be made, but perhaps we will start to learn some lessons. One thing I can promise is that it isn’t going to slow down.

Polis is part of the LSE. Charlie Beckett tweets on @CharlieBeckett 

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