News in Today’s Digital, Social Age

It’s been nearly a week since tragedy broke out during the annual Boston Marathon. People all over the world watched, read and listened to news about the two bombs that exploded near the finish line, killing three spectators and injuring more than 170 others. The motive behind Monday’s attack was unclear to all, and it wasn’t until Thursday that the suspects, a pair of brothers, were identified. What happened next was like something from an action movie: a shooting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a carjacking followed by a shoot-out with the cops and a full-scale manhunt in Watertown. By Friday night, everyone knew that one of the suspects had died while the other had been apprehended and taken into a hospital for treatment. Now, while the authorities continue to search for answers, journalists and critics debate a big issue that arose in the wake of the bombing—the role of the public and social media in today’s news.

Print vs. Post

I must admit that I’ve never been much for reading the newspaper. Maybe it’s the way the ink smudges on my fingers and how the monochromatic layout makes bad news seem even more dismal. It wasn’t until I’d hooked myself up with a smartphone that I began to keep track of the happenings around the world, consuming news through mobile apps like CNN and the world’s favorite microblogging platform, Twitter. Not only do they give me the stories in full color, they are also updated in real-time. I experienced the glaring difference between traditional news and digital-media news when I’d found out about the Catholic Church’s new pope through the CNN app just minutes after white smoke appeared, only to wake up a few hours later and see the headline of my local newspaper: “Black smoke—still no pope” (or something along those lines).

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who was converted by digital news. But with the erroneous updates propagated through tweets, Facebook pages and even reputable news agencies, critics are questioning whether or not we should put much stock on digital news. As Molly Wood of CNET put it, “If speed is the currency of the modern information era, misinformation is the increasingly high cost…We have more information, but it’s a morass of truths, half-truths and what we used to call libel.”

Speed vs. Validity

In the hurry to release an update before it hits Twitter, some reporters broadcast news without having them verified first. And because the public is anxious to hear about actual progress, they take matters into their own hands and turn to crowdsourcing. RingCentral defines this as “leveraging an online community for ideas, insights and solutions”; in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, it involved civilians pooling their resources to identify possible suspects. The intention was good, but we have to keep in mind that it involved mostly conjecture and very little solid evidence. Now that news can be shared with a click of a button, it’s all the more important to check the facts before word goes viral and some innocent individual is subjected to unwarranted harassment.

It’s natural to want to help out, especially when it comes to matters of this gravity. But exactly because it’s that crucial, we should recognize the limitations of our efforts and learn to have faith in the capabilities of the experts.

The Power of the People

Despite the negative limelight cast on a certain aspect of crowdsourcing, it’s necessary to note that it’s also doing some good. The international community has been flocking to crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe and Give Forward in order to help raise money to cover the costs of the bombing victims’ hospitalization, treatments and rehabilitation. Reddit’s Random Acts of Pizza helped feed people in command centers and hospitals by sending out over 1,500 pizzas, whereas various individuals and establishments have been using social networking sites to offer shelter and free food to those who were affected.

I suppose it all boils down to the fact that, like it or hate it, the presence of social media will continue to change the way news is made and disseminated, and the way people react to the news. What we need to do is harness its power to generate positive—and let’s not forget, substantiated—results.