No News is Good News

There are very dangerous, scary people in Boston and I am sitting at home with the TV off. I have no news websites open. I look at Twitter, but I find I am mostly getting upset, not learning much about what is happening.

I want to know why someone would do such a terrible thing, but I find these places where I am supposed to look for answers don’t really have them.  They have answers, I suppose.  These nuggets of truth are buried in piles of misinformation, speculation, and people dying to be first, not dying to be right.

You are likely rolling your eyes calling me a luddite, which is fair, I kind of am.  In this instance though, I think the answer to my problem lies less in the past and more in the future.  In fact, AP excluded, I had pretty much given up on most MSM long ago as a regular source of news and information. Like many others, I tend to find interesting articles through Twitter and Facebook.  I find most of my news from new media sources. I admire the ability to quickly turn around information.

Most of the time, this arrangement works fine. You occasionally stumble into some bad information, but it is usually pretty easy to suss out.

Unfortunately, it is in these times of crisis that the Twitter news model seems to fail me so profoundly.

Just a few months ago, I watched in horror as news of the Newtown massacre hit Twitter.  I saw folks posting unverified news updates and pictures of the alleged weapon before police had even finished searching the crime scene.  I remember when someone appeared to figure out who the perpetrator was. Links to the Facebook profile and old pictures hit the Twitterverse minutes later.  It was remarkable to see how quickly information spread.

Problem is, that information was wrong.

The outlet misidentifying Ryan Lanza as the killer could’ve gotten him killed. It didn’t thankfully. Instead, it made an innocent 20 year old kid the subject of international scrutiny as people read his FB posts and Twitter feed and wasted no time labeling him a nutjob and a psychopath.  Turns out he wasn’t. Turns out he was just another emo kid, your typical teenager. And it also turned out that this kid had to deal with this scrutiny on the same day he learned his brother was responsible for the second deadliest school shooting in history.  That person also killed Ryan Lanza’s mother.

Ryan Lanza had to pay the price for others to be first, to prove to the Twitterverse they had something worth saying.  He wasn’t the only one either. There was at least one other young man with the same name who wasn’t even related to the killer whose Twitter feed to this day still has more than 3,000 followers and an author pleading for people to unfollow him because he is not that guy.

As the scene unfolds in Boston tonight, I can’t help but think of Ryan Lanza again. When I think about what I wanted and needed to know about Newtown that day, none of it was so imperative that it merited the massive and deplorable encroachment of privacy that the younger Lanza brother went through.

None of us needed to know the back story of the killer that day because police had already confirmed the threat was dead.  This was not a public safety issue, there was no urgency, and there was no reason the rest of us couldn’t wait until parents had been notified of their children’s passing or that officials couldn’t notify Ryan Lanza before the rest of us.  It would have still been news six hours later. Or even the next day.

There is urgency in Boston.  People in the neighborhood need to know to stay inside, which police are trying to do via automated calls.  Watertown residents need to know to stay away and not stop their car for anyone but an armed police officer.  But do they need to know every transmission on the police scanner?  Is it so important that you are going to compromise the security of police communication while a mass murderer is on the run and could probably stand to benefit from knowing what police are talking about?

Looking at @BostonScanner, it becomes painfully obvious to me that this is a feed with plenty of information, but a fair amount of it is not particularly useful mostly because it isn’t verifiable.  Look at images of the scene.  You tell me if you think the lines of communication there are full of nothing but accurate information.

Yet I see many in my Twitter feed spreading the words of the scanner as if it was gospel.  I also see folks lambasting CNN for not being up to date on information.  I have not watched CNN in several years and have several other reasons to lambaste them besides timeliness, but I will say this:

If I was a journalist (I am not), being a little late to break news would frustrate me.  Breaking news that turned out to be uncorroborated and incorrect in a situation as grave as this would keep me from sleeping at night, probably for the rest of my life.

Folks like @akitz and other eyewitnesses and citizen reporters are great and illustrate what Twitter really excels at–disseminating info in rapid-fire fashion to a wide range of people. As a result, folks like those at Reddit have become very good at putting that information in a central place, creating an, albeit, disjointed narrative.  Sites like Storify allow folks to do similar things, synthesize these bits and pieces into a narrative.  Incredible pieces of journalism and new media have resulted from this. Plenty of erroneous assumptions and dangerous implications have resulted from this process as well though.

I hope that eventually we learn how to fine-tune this process, because it has a tremendous amount of potential.  I hope that the mainstream media figures out how to use Twitter better, and I certainly hope they follow the lead of @AP and institute policies and practices to ensure that they think and evaluate before they tweet.  I am inspired to see that journalists are withholding suspects names until someone officially confirms them, even though they’ve been reported on the scanner.

I am also inspired to see these unifying moments on Twitter, as disheartening as it may be to note that it takes a national tragedy to create a communal experience these days.  We are listening to one another and trying to learn from one another, problem is, none of us have much of anything useful to say about this particular incident. It is like watching cable news, except the talking heads are your friends, who aren’t being held to any sort of journalistic standard.  It has its entertaining moments, but when it boils down to it, it is just a lot of filler until we get the whole story.  Twitter may be where the story unfolds, but we still need folks to put the whole thing together, to fact check, to go back, and to make sure that the official story adds up to more than just 140 characters.

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