By Jason Menard
Like so many times before, the death of mainstream media has been greatly exaggerated. But if anything has died as a result of the questionable coverage of the Boston terrorist bombings and subsequent manhunt, hopefully it’s the prevalence of jumping the gun when reporting potential smoking guns.
And that’s something for which both traditional and social media are guilty.
With tonight’s capture of the second alleged terrorist in the Boston Marathon bombings, we can begin asking key questions about why and how this act came about. However, the questioning over the role of traditional and social media has been rampant since the seconds of the attack.
And while there are those gleefully professing that this is proof of the dominance of modern social networking over an outdated mainstream media machine, that is far from the truth.
If any side chooses to claim a victory in this coverage, it will be a Pyrrhic one at best. The confusion, misinformation, and irresponsibility of those Tweeting actually proved why a responsible professional media is important. Although some members of that same mainstream media didn’t exactly comport themselves well.
Most notably, CNN has taken its lumps for a litany of errors and poor judgement calls, including incorrectly reporting suspects being taken into custody. And while the Twitterverse was gleefully sharpening its pitchforks, it failed to put that same level of razor-sharp concentration on facts and accuracy. From ‘outings’ of innocents to mass-distributing police-scanner reports, there was not a lot to be proud of on-line or off.
And we haven’t even broached the topic of brutally racist and ignorant commenters, which plagued both sides.
It’s our own fault. We created this monster and our demand for instant gratification only feeds the beast. We’ve created a society where instant commentary is valued over thoughtful analysis. We celebrate a content-at-all-costs culture where context is a casualty of war.
The world has sped up to the point where maintaining control is a challenge. Like in hockey, where the elimination of the red line increased the frequency and severity of high-speed mid-ice collisions, so too has the advent of the citizen journalist and “live-Tweeting” caused traditional media outlets to work so fast that they’re self-inflicting concussions on their brands.
Much of the content “broken” or shared on social networks was merely rehashed information shared by traditional media sources. Some performed better than others — both in terms of the media outlets reporting the news and the social media posters who were curating and sharing that information.
There will always be a need for a paid-for, independent, mainstream media. Very few social media users are actually breaking news — and even fewer are doing it on even a semi-regular basis. For the most part, they’re engaging in “me-too” journalism — the act of taking published reports or topics exposed by mainstream media and adding their own opinion.
There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s kept in perspective.
Blogging is not new; social networking is not borne of the Internet. For over a hundred years, newspapers have been creating and encouraging the same type of content through opinion columns and letters to the editor. It’s just now the bar to mass distribution of this has been lowered.
But instead of expecting bloggers and other citizen journalists to step up their game, the traditional media outlets have started to lower another bar — the one guiding the vetting, approval, and distribution of content.
For a long time, my biggest concern about citizen journalism and blogging was that many of its practitioners didn’t display even a rudimentary understanding of libel. The greater concern, it seems, is that for some there is little to no concern for ensuring content is accurate.
In our rush to “first” when did we sacrifice our desire for “correct”?
As a result of this social age, traditional media has been challenged to find a way to stay relevant. Instead of embracing what it was good at — thorough, thought-provoking analysis, and a steadfast desire to present the facts — it has tried to outscoop the Twitteratti.
Unfortunately, it has slipped down that slope to doing so at the expense of fact-checking and sober second-thought. The casualty is credibility.
For some social networkers, maintaining that credibility is not a big concern; for a responsible — and effective — media it must be the foundation of everything they do.
So do the errors in reporting, speculation, and judgement displayed in the coverage of the Boston Marathon murders represent the end of the mainstream media? Far from it.
If we’re lucky, we’ll all learn from these errors. We’ll realize that quality, accurate content has immensely more value than getting it on-line first. And we’ll finally be able to mark the end of the “first” era and celebrate the ushering in of the “right” era.