April 20, 2013 at 8:00 PM
Lesson from the manhunt: We’re all journalists now
Thursday night, after dark, monsters moved in Boston.
Friday morning, we woke to a terrifying thing. A policeman killed, another wounded and others threatened. A proud city on lockdown. A dangerous young man on the loose.
And something — the ground upon which we build our knowledge — had made another shift.
Not everyone felt it. But if you were one of the hundreds of thousands across the country caught mind and heart in the moment, maybe you did.
News is not just something we check every now and then. It’s not just a job, for some people, or an interest, for others. What goes on in our world and how we come to understand it tells us more than we know about who we are and how we’re connected. There are facts and reports and updates. Those are the bones. But there is also feeling, reaction, emotion. That’s the blood.
And it’s pumping.
News became a little less of an industry and a little more of a living, breathing organism Thursday night. It’s not a new direction. For more than a decade now, ever since anyone with a thought and an Internet connection could so easily provoke his species, news has become less controlled. More vulnerable. More, well, human.
It has not, though, become easy. In fact, news demands more from us now than ever.
Consider two examples from Thursday night.
If you want to know what happened in #watertown 5 hours ago turn on the tv. If you want to know what’s going on now turn on Twitter!
— Marshall(@marshallsheldon) April 19, 2013
Like many who stayed up most of the night following developments, I’d made Twitter my newsroom. Since before the 2009 Lakewood police shootings here in Puget Sound, it’s been and remains the best single portal to raw, fresh developments on big developing events — if, that is, you can pick the signal from the noise. In the middle of the night, it was even better.
Witnesses at MIT and Watertown shared developments on Twitter before the news hit some major news sites. News that the first suspect had died would come not from a news organization, but from a tweet from Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis.
One suspect dead. One at large. Armed and dangerous. White hat suspect at large.
— Edward Davis (@EdDavis3) April 19, 2013
As for broadcast news, the 24-hour cable networks scrambled to keep up. But to rapt followers hungry for the latest, their secondhand speculation could not compare with what could be heard on the hottest broadcast of the night — the Boston Police scanner.
Of course, a police scanner was never meant to be a news broadcast. It’s actionable communication for cops, not contextualized information for the public.
On Thursday and early Friday, it was clear its use had changed. Tens of thousands of people listened in to online scanner streams, as officers traded locations, speculations, warnings. This “news” was not just fluid and raw. It was irresistible.
— Kelley Cohen-New (@CaptKel) April 19, 2013
People tweeted what they heard, and it was a bad game of telephone. When an officer cited intel that the suspect had posted a threat online (it would turn out to be from a fake Twitter account), one influential tweet said the suspect had intercepted the scanner channel to deliver the threat.
By morning the Boston Police’s Twitter account had issued a warning to media old and new:
#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.
— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 19, 2013
Disseminating loose, unfiltered information is a thrill, but it can have had serious consequences.
Which brings us to the false suspects.
In the evening, when much was still unclear, a post on social news site Reddit was gaining heat. It speculated that a missing college student from Boston might be the suspect at large. Not long before midnight, a man tweeted that he had heard police name two suspects on the scanner, and shared those names. One was the missing college student.
Though users on Reddit can be reckless, the site has played host to some fierce collaborative reporting. Another Reddit post Thursday night, a disciplined, refreshingly neutral guide to every source and resource worth watching, became a handy home page.
But it’s when things feel most exciting that assumptions are most dangerous and restraint is most critical — both for the media and everybody else. Fueled by the thrill of the many Reddit and Twitter users convinced the missing student was our guy, the claim went everywhere, along with hostile posts about the student and his family. One influential Twitter user I know tweeted to his tens of thousands of followers that the ID had been “confirmed.” When I asked how, I realized he’d mistaken repetition for confirmation. Far too many had.
As you report, remember: No one will remember who was “first” this week; we’ll remember who was wrong. (See CNN, AP, NY Post, et al.)
— Society of Pro Journ (@spj_tweets) April 19, 2013
The doubts came when NBC News reported that the suspects were foreign born, which the college student was not. When The Associated Press reported the suspect’s true identity, the scrubbing began. Tweets deleted. Posts edited. Evidence of culpability quietly erased. We’ve since learned that the missing student’s name never even aired on the scanner. His family was devastated. They can’t find their son, now this?
The general manager of Reddit apologized to the family on behalf of the company and its employees. But who would apologize on behalf of its users? The question hung unanswered: Whose fault was this? Who answers for it? Everyone? No one? How could we possibly accept that?
I was not blameless here. I avoided any mention of the unconfirmed suspects in my feed and even tweeted that the sourcing on those rumors was questionable. But I fueled the rumors anyway when I retweeted a friend and journalist whose praise of Reddit linked not to the neutral Reddit guide, as I’d assumed (never assume!) but to the runaway rumor mill.
We are a self-informing public now. Empowered and eager, but learning. There’s power here, and with it comes a burden.
Things have changed. It’s no longer about who is a journalist, but who does journalism.
Information as a bond — that’s what many of us felt Thursday night as we stayed up late online with Boston, sharing in their fear and hope, echoing their anger at the suspects and their admiration of their officers.
4-19-13 the night when the WHOLE INTERNET was a#Watertown resident. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
— Phoenix (@Focalin) April 19, 2013
People miss the days when news was contained and controlled. It was done for them, not by them. But that’s over. News is not just our interest now. It’s our responsibility.
And I know we can take it.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.