Before Hurricane Sandy, before Sandy Hook, I was telling someone in my industry about what I do. At some point in the description, I said some form of: “I help search social and find stories during breaking news.”
The guy looked at me and said: “What happens when everyone learns how to search?”
I’m pretty sure we’re there; this is what happens.
I don’t find often that writing about what I do does me any good, especially when I run the risk of inserting myself into a narrative that should be about gun control and doing no harm to innocents, not about reels of who got what wrong. But something about this story was so unsettling. It is the first time I can remember where it was impossible to know what was real and what wasn’t with any aspect of the story — not just for a half hour or 45 minutes, but hours upon hours.
During those hours, social media users (journalists, non-journalists, media organizations, bloggers, trolls … everyone) traded information (lots of it bad) at the speed of light. And as journalists we’ve been telling ourselves to chase those leads. To search. It was interesting to watch Andy Carvin take some of the blame for sharing inaccurate information on Twitter, when sharing information of any kind was a system that worked reasonably well for him in the past. He was not the only influential person to share bad information that day — on “mainstream” or “social media” — but the volume of tweets he sent that day was almost certainly the highest. I think there was something not done before and interesting with what he’d done during the Arab Spring — I recall reporters chasing his leads, and vetting those sources, and writing amazing stories based on snippets he shared with his network — but I don’t follow Andy and I never have. I felt back then that was too much noise and there was too much risk associated with having such high volume of all types of information in my feed. And as mobile adoption speeds up and people with smartphones become acclimated to sharing everything about their lives, I feel that now there’s only more noise, only more risk.
So we’re at an interesting place in social media, the settling of the Wild West. What was once a space that felt truly open and collaborative (and also flawed and lawless) now feels a little bit smaller because the consequences of any action are more serious. Many of us who have argued for social media as a legitimate publishing tool seem to have had our wish granted. But there is a certain responsibility that comes with this. For me, I feel the need to recalibrate how I’ve looked at social, because it’s just not the same landscape out there it used to be. There are serious perks but also some drawbacks to this shift, mainly this: Asking people not to share information they find on social media and then talk about it goes against why people ever showed up here in the first place. Even if by some magic journalists convince themselves to completely stop sharing anything during a breaking news situation, there will still be people wanting to talk about what they see. There will still be people who try to aid us in our fact-finding, even if it’s pointing us in the wrong direction. And there will still be people close to the situation to search for. The irony is that almost none of it is done with malicious intent, but regardless, why it’s done and how it’s perceived don’t always match up. That’s fair.
I wanted to know how the media did amongst people I don’t work with, so I started a discussion on my Facebook page. Rude awakening. One comment from my friend Ted stood out:
I think the media continuously proves that it has no regard for the betterment of society. However, they are just giving the masses what they want. This is an awful tragedy, but it seems that everyone wants to watch it like an accident on the highway…which even then is a disturbing trend.
This part it all, the tension between wanting to supply good info for readers quickly and not doing any harm, will haunt me for a little while. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking a lot about filtering out the noise more effectively. And I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “this is how it is now.”
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