Goodykoontz: Social vs. traditional media: Why can't we all get along? (column)

3:25 PM, Apr. 23, 2013  |  Comments
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Everything you know is wrong.

At times during the insane breakneck coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing investigation, it's seemed like the title of an old Firesign Theatre record ought to be the slogan for media coverage.

All media coverage. Not just CNN. Not just traditional media. Not just new media and social media.

I am a huge fan of online journalism and social media. But the events of last week were dispiriting all the way around, and not just for the usual reasons. It's not just mistakes. Everyone makes them. It's the attitude, the us-vs.-them nature of what's filled Twitter feeds for the past few days.

On Wednesday, CNN erroneously reported that arrests had been made in the case. The network was excoriated on social media (and everywhere else) for jumping the gun with bad information, and rightly so. Correspondents and anchors trying to walk back the story were about as ridiculous a thing as has been on television anywhere lately. It was genuinely uncomfortable to watch. This isn't just a typo in a newspaper story or online post. This is the kind of thing that erodes the media's already shaky credibility even further.

Then Thursday night, all hell broke loose. A police officer shot at MIT. A chase. A gunbattle in Watertown. Reports of bombs going off. A suspect is in custody. Another suspect is still at large. The first suspect has died. Then, what everyone expected to hear: Yes, these are the suspects in the marathon bombings.

As more details became available, the attitude on social media became increasingly smug. Why isn't this or that on TV? Twitter is walking all over cable news. What's wrong with CNN?

This is a watershed moment, the end of old media as we know it.

Uh, maybe not.

Threads showed up on Reddit saying that perhaps one of the suspects was the missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi. Why isn't mainstream media reporting this?

Because, as Jon Stewart might say, it was (expletive) wrong.

The moderator for the "FindBostonBombers" Reddit thread has since apologized to the Tripathi family via posted statement.

This bears repeating: Crime scenes are chaotic, for law enforcement and media. Crime scenes in which there are active gun battles are insane. People under that kind of stress, in that kind of danger, say many things that turn out not to be true. It is human nature. Because everyone involved is terrified.

One of the big social-media discoveries Thursday night and Friday morning was that police scanner traffic can be followed in real time online. A social-media discovery made a little while later was that scanner traffic is not meant to be used as a credible source of information. It is the starting point. It's what tells reporters where to go, where the action is happening, so that they can get there and start reporting. But the reporting still has to be done, and it has to be done at the scene.

"Twitter isn't beating the tar out of cable news on this story. Newspaper reporters on Twitter are," one person tweeted.

"You can't quote local TV news stations via Twitter and say old media is dead," tweeted another.

Old media isn't dead. And it doesn't have to be. One thing does not have to prevail at the expense of another.

The thing to remember here is that this is not a zero-sum game, as some social-media fans (and traditional-media stalwarts, too) would have it. If we have learned anything in the last week, and let's hope that we have, it's that social media and traditional media can both be incredibly useful in reporting a story.

And they can both be wrong.

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