Social media grows up in Boston

At the risk of plowing ground that will soon be tilled by innumerable Master’s theses, the Boston Marathon bombing feels like a watershed for social media. Integration of social content into “mainstream” news took a huge step forward. At the same time, the spotlight illuminated just how grown-up social channels have become.

Boston Marathon aftermath

Photo Credit: stiatska via Compfight cc

A common criticism of social media is that they are undisciplined and unstructured, lacking traditional fact checking or organization. What matters most to social communicators, critics charge, is attention – not truth.

This view overlooks every media’s interest in attention (why did we get into this business, again?) and belittles sincere attempts at fact finding and verification in social media. In an insidious way, it reinforces belief in the importance of “traditional” sources in times of crisis. That belief is misplaced.

A generation ago, broadcasters clearly were in charge of breaking news. Having wrested the crown from newspapers after all-day editions vanished from the scene (along with customers’ reserves of time and patience), default behavior upon hearing surprising news was to flick on the nearest radio or TV set.

CNN arrived as radio abdicated its breaking news role: Commercial stations were scaling back or eliminating news and public radio didn’t consider minute-by-minute coverage within its purview. We saw ample evidence after Boston, when once-proud CBS Radio simulcast Scott Pelley’s TV anchoring in lieu of radio-specific continuous coverage. Other commercial stations aired CNN’s audio track as “radio” coverage.

As any number of Master’s theses can testify, 24-hour video news was a game changer.

Broadcast networks still air continuous coverage of major stories, but their resource-limited attempts more and more resemble their cable brethren (or vice versa). In the case of Boston, the broadcast nets’ programming was all but indistinguishable in range or depth from major cable players. NBC’s Pete Williams distinguished himself through application of strong, fundamental news standards to reporting from all sources (including social media) – but did this have anything to do with his particular employer?

More significant, minute-by-minute developments in the story (“dribs and drabs,” as one colleague describes them) that surfaced on broadcast and cable were almost entirely reflections of factoids and falsehoods buzzing through social media. Reporters and anchors were forced into unfamiliar roles as curators of social data.

Being new to the work, many didn’t understand that curation involves transparency and evaluation, with a bias toward the free exchange of ideas. In contrast to the tight controls and critical exclusions common to traditional journalism, social media flourish when excesses are exposed and criticized in turn. The community has a way of correcting to sea level.

An unspoken discomfort among the talking heads and their bosses is that social sources are displacing sages who preserve the status quo. Mainstreamers conflated social media’s avatar culture with anonymity: “We don’t want another Richard Jewell!” Of course not – but neither do the people tweeting and posting in an effort to catch the real bombers. Your social media brand may not be FirstName-MiddleInitial-LastName, but it’s unique and (in most cases) just as verifiable and accountable.

Even the authorities acknowledged this fundamental change in sourcing. The investigators’ appeal for public photos and video wasn’t just clever police strategy – it explicitly underlined the point that traditional media failed to grasp. With ubiquitous newsgathering technology, superior probative content exists. Acquiring that content means opening the door wide, welcoming all comers and looking at everything that arrives with opportunistic, evaluative perspective, not an unblinking, critical eye.

Boston demonstrated that social media have entered the mainstream. Social media sources helped many Americans learn about what happened, where it led and (most important) what was happening at any given moment. (Social media was my personal window on the Friday night pursuit and apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarneaev. I felt better served by Twitter than by CNN, CBS or any of the other three-letter giants.)

As social media permeate American life, practitioners become more expert at curating social content. Millions followed the Twitter link to police scanner feeds, listened and decided for themselves what mattered. Just like newsroom staffers have always done, the expanded audience had to sift the wheat from the chaff.

It’s only a matter of time before the dominant impulse in response to rumors of an earthshaking event will be to reach for the nearest mobile device, instead of flipping on a TV or radio. The raw feed of the news – the first draft of history – will be there for the taking. We’re close to that now; maybe it’s time to drop the pejorative “social media” from “social media news.”

Now, bring on the Master’s theses.