In light of the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old suspect of the Boston Marathon bombing, I wanted to talk about the way this story was covered in social media and traditional journalism.
I spent many hours watching broadcast news of this story, watching breaking news unfold before me. It was a fascinating process to watch how traditional news organizations were scrambling to piece together the jigsaw puzzle that social media created. Breaking news reports were often, though not always, started by reports saying something to the effect of “We just want to remind our viewers that this information is not yet confirmed and comes from a report by (insert other news company here),” almost as a way to place the blame on someone else if the information turned out to be false. Twitter was also countlessly referenced as a source of new breaking information, sometimes with an explanation of how Twitter actually works, undoubtedly for the audience that still is not sure what a ‘tweet’ actually is.
The use of social media as a primary source for the coverage of this story brought with it many problems, yet it was also arguably the most important tool the news media had at their disposal. Twitter allowed for breakneck speed when it came to updates on eye-witness accounts or updates from the Boston Police Department, but it also created much inaccuracy in the reports.
The competitiveness of journalists to get the scoop on a new juicy piece of information and the need to try and be the first to relay the information to the public created a spiral of unconfirmed reports. These reports were sometimes debunked as being not credible or untrue as fast as they were reported.
In these last few days we saw the news media at work trying their best to contextualize and tell a complete story of what was unfolding, while social media fed them the information that they so desperately needed in order to keep the public up to date. Some people might argue that the news industry was too hasty in reporting on some incidents like the identity of the suspects, but it was the journalists and the news industry that helped make sense of what was going on. They did the dirty work of sorting through the mess of tweets on Twitter and trying to sort out the credible from the potentially false. In the end of the day social media sites and journalists worked in tandem to report on one of the largest manhunt cases in American history, and I think they succeeded by letting the public know what they have a right to know, mistakes be damned.