The social media tail mustn’t wag the MSM dog

By Felix Salmon
April 21, 2013

The Boston bombing and subsequent manhunt was in many ways the first big interactive news story. It wasn’t the first big event to be covered obsessively on social media, but it was the first big event where millions of people became part of the story themselves. Some did so through choice, combing through photographs on Reddit or 4chan; others simply happened to be in Boston and saw their public lives, as broadcast to the world on social media, become part of the story just by dint of where they were.

The result was a veritable deluge of streams, in a world where the news has become a hard-to-navigate rapids at the best of times. For anybody who wanted to stay on top of what was happening without drowning in noise, experience and level-headedness were invaluable, and were displayed most prominently by Pete Williams of NBC.

But while Williams was the most visible of the people who got it right, there were many others, mostly unsung, working at places like the NYT. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, rightly praises its editors for “staying away from unconfirmed reports” and treating with suspicion anything coming from “unnamed law enforcement sources”.

In the tradition of journalistic oxpeckers everywhere, Sullivan concludes that the NYT’s “reporting from Boston all week was fast, deep and accurate”. Which is the truth, but it’s not the whole truth: I’m quite sure that a very large part of the credit should go to the editors in New York, rather than the reporters in Boston. In a story this sprawling, no one reporter, and no one law-enforcement source, can possibly see anything approaching the big picture; it falls to the editors to take the various streams of information coming into the newsroom, many of which outright contradicted each other, and to weave them into a coherent and accurate whole.

Anybody who was on Twitter over the past week knows how hard that job was. It’s an exercise in massively multivariate real-time Bayesian analysis: as the news streams in from multiple sources over the course of the day and night, every new piece of information has to be analyzed in light of everything else that’s already known, or thought to be known. A clear on-the-record statement from the governor can be assumed to be perfectly reliable, but just about nothing else can be — not even the reporting of your own employees, who can easily make good-faith errors during such an extended and chaotic story. Sleep deprivation alone can account for that.

An experienced editor will use her hard-earned judgment to weigh the relative reliability of all the different sources of information. Some people added enormous value on Twitter — Seth Mnookin, for instance, had fewer than 7,000 followers on Sunday, and more than 40,000 by the end of the week, for good reason. Others, like Williams, proved their reliability on television, even as their rivals at other channels were reporting things which turned out to be false.

There’s an art to working out where to find fast and reliable information, and to judging new information in light of old information, and to judging old information in light of new information. And there’s an art to synthesizing everything you know, from hundreds of different sources, into a single coherent narrative. It’s not easy, it’s not a skill that most people have, and it’s precisely where news organizations add value.

But in this particular case, as Noah Brier points out in a post headlined “Being Part of the Story”, it’s something that millions of people ended up attempting to do, on the fly, anyway:

Everyone wanted to be involved in “the hunt,” whether it was on Twitter and Google for information about the suspected bomber, on the TV where reporters were literally chasing these guys around, or the police who were battling these two young men on a suburban street. Watching the new tweets pop up I got a sense that the content didn’t matter as much as the feeling of being involved, the thrill of the hunt if you will. As Wasik notes, we’ve entered an age where how things spread through culture is more interesting than the content itself.

The crowdsourced hunt was, in the end, unambiguously counterproductive: it hurt much more than it helped. But it wasn’t just Redditors and hive minds which got caught up in this particular mindset. If you look at the missteps of outlets like the New York Post and CNN, it’s easy to see them in this light — breathlessly passing on every new tidbit of information, rather than taking their function as editors and filters as seriously as they should have done.

Which brings me to an important and quite wrong essay from Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed, and his colleague John Herrman.

Under the old rules, a responsible citizen passed any potential bit of news he could find on to the professionals. The professionals collected tips, corroborated them, published the ones that panned out. Reporters could protect their readers from bad information — indeed, for reporters, the story was defined largely by what was kept from the public…

Now we should assume our readers and viewers see virtually everything that we see. We can no longer decide which rumors and scraps of information should be dignified with publication — a sufficiently compelling scrap of information, be it a picture of a man with a black backpack or an anonymous, single-sentence Reddit post from the scene of the crime, will become news on that merit alone…

The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it. A Reddit post seen by millions without context is worse for the story, and the public, and to the mission of reporting than the same post in a helpful and informed context seen by many more. Reporting is no longer a question of whether or not to dignify new and questionable information with attention — it’s about predicting which of it will influence the story, and explaining, debunking, or contextualizing it the best we can. That is, incidentally, what our readers want.

It’s possible that Smith and Herrman are right that their readers are clamoring for BuzzFeed to explain, debunk, and contextualize the constant stream of noise and misinformation coming from Reddit and Twitter. But I suspect that if there is such a clamor, it’s coming from a vocal minority. For one thing, only a minority of BuzzFeed’s visitors come for hard news at all. And of those who do, only a minority of them care very much what BuzzFeed’s interpretation is of the material they’re reading on Reddit and Twitter. Finally, by their nature, Reddit and Twitter are going to be presenting a different narrative to each of their millions of users: what BuzzFeed’s editors are seeing on those platforms is not going to be the same thing that BuzzFeed’s readers are seeing.

It’s undoubtedly true that in the age of social media, it’s become very easy for anybody to peer behind the news curtain and see the chaotic raw material from which it is produced. But that in no way weakens the onus on responsible and experienced news editors to filter that material and form it into a fast, deep and accurate report. Indeed, the value added by those editors has never been more obvious than it is in situations like this one.

Smith and Herrman are absolutely wrong that a compelling yet false factoid, being shared willy-nilly across various social-media platforms, “will become news on that merit alone”. News is something true and important and relevant; it is not, and should never be, misinformation. Neither is it “whatever our readers happen to be finding on the internet”. Smith and Herrman are essentially taking a hugely important story, here, and reducing it to the status of covering a viral meme: the Gangnamization of terror. I have no problem with news stories covering viral sensations, but they’re what you do after you cover the important stuff. They’re not the important stuff themselves.

Which is not to say that BuzzFeed did a bad job last week. Debunking corrosive memes is a genuine public service, and it’s great that outlets like BuzzFeed and Gawker are doing it. Where I part with Smith and Herrman, however, is in their implication that everybody else — the NYT, the WSJ, the Boston Globe, Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN — should be doing it as well. That’s silly, and I can’t believe that many people would want to live in a world where a relatively small number of Redditors could effectively set the news agenda for the entire country.

On Monday, I received an email from someone calling herself Sarah Hanson, in which she claimed that she had successfully auctioned off 10% of her post-tax future income for the next ten years, raising $125,000 in the process. I wasn’t the only journalist to hear from Hanson: she had already, at that point, managed to score an interview with VentureBeat, which in turn begat lots of other coverage around the internet. But various aspects of the story didn’t smell right, to me, so I sent an email to VentureBeat, asking if they were sure this girl was for real. It turns out that she almost certainly isn’t. I was perfectly happy for VentureBeat to write the debunking; in fact, that was the perfect place for it to happen: there was very little point in me writing a story saying “some person you probably haven’t heard of is very unlikely to actually exist”.

Given the amount of information pouring onto the internet every minute, it’s statistically inevitable that a substantial amount of that information is going to be erroneous — especially when the source is something as unedited as Reddit or Twitter. No mainstream journalism outlet should allow its coverage of a major story to be hijacked by backchannel noise — especially when a large part of the value such outlets provide is that they filter out the noise and transmit only a reliable signal. Just because your readers can peer behind the curtain, doesn’t mean you have any responsibility to yank it open yourself.

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