In the face of breaking news, comparing old-school news and social media

By Hiram Sachs of Salem, Oregon. Hiram produces direct mail and television advertising for Democrats and progressives around the country. He loves helping the good guys win in places like Albuquerque, Passaic, and Woodburn. Most of Hiram's time is spent refereeing fights between his left and right brains.

Last night’s explosion of Twitter traffic during the #Watertown shootout and manhunt was at once thrilling and sobering. The events triggered by the tragic death of an MIT police officer show that while a lot has changed in way news is gathered and reported, some important things remain the same.

There’s a real thrill in being connected to thousands of other Twitter users, all over the country, following events in a fast-breaking major news story. Trading tips, updating each other, and looking for a “scoop” gives everyone the opportunity to report the news.

And last night, several eyewitness reports from the Watertown neighborhood were the most important thing happening on the net. In particular, Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) shared his first-hand report and grainy photos of the suspects trading waves of gunfire with law enforcement. By the middle of the night, all the major news networks had joined in – interviewing Kitzenberg who displayed the bullet hole in his wall and took his laptop to the window to provide a real-time feed of events. However, with the bomb squad on the street below, he declined to open his window.

For a news geek like me, it doesn’t get any better than that.

But while Kitzenberg, Seth Mnookin (@sethmnookin, “somebody get him a charged-up cell phone!”) and others outperformed much of the network news coverage for hours last night, there were other ways that the citizen news brigade fell short, way short.

In particular, at about 3AM Eastern last night the “names” of the two suspects began flooding the net. A trickle at first, the “positive” IDs of two young men complete with photos and back-stories began dominating Twitter traffic. At this point, the old-school news agencies had yet to assign a name to the suspects, one dead and one reportedly evading a manhunt near a local mall.

When I went to sleep, I couldn’t wait to find out what the morning news would bring.

It brought a reminder that we still need “legacy” news organizations – for a while, at least. Because the names of the subjects that flooded Twitter last night were proven 100% wrong this morning.

What? After all the mocking tweets last night about journalistic ineptitude (“CNN reports the North winning the Civil War”), the citizen news corps proves equally – or more – prone to gaping gaffes in reportage?

Yup.

Interestingly, the first time I saw Kitzenberg’s reporting last night was when I decided to unhook my Twitter IV and check out the Gray Lady. At a time when breathless bits of data were spinning around disconnectedly, the New York Times featured possibly the first decent chronology of what happened and who was its source? Andrew Kitzenberg. Good reporting and good sourcing was still the thing.

Sure, a lot of the on-air talent seemed stuck in amber last night – peering over police blockades and repeating the same tidbits over and over again. But eventually, many of those reporters started securing interviews with eyewitnesses that filled in the details of the night’s events.

And when it came to the big stuff – whether Suspect #1 was dead and where Suspect #2 had gone – the Boston Globe and the Times (the two I was following) were far out in front with the facts.

And this morning, their old school, unglamorous reporting gave us the actual names of the two individuals involved in the night’s events. I only hope that the two people who were wrongly identified all over the net last night aren’t suffering any ill effects from this rush to judgment.

So, with a nod to #morningjoe, what have we learned? Twitter – and other net sources – are invaluable sources of unmediated eyewitness reporting in the face of breaking news. 20 years ago, when the net was in its infancy, PeaceNet -- perhaps the first “social network” (we didn’t call them that then) -- played a similar role, giving eyewitnesses to tumult in Russia the ability to update their friends online. You just can’t beat someone with a bullet hole in his window or the first story about a Michael Bay-worthy chase and shootout through residential streets.

But despite our technology, people are people. And our tendency to misinform, jumble information, or just plain freak out in the face of too much data hasn’t changed.

So I imagine that in newsrooms around the country this morning, there’s probably at least a twinge of satisfaction. Seems the Twitter hasn’t put the news business completely out of business, at least not yet.

Back to you, Chuck.

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