Here’s the transcript of a talk I gave at the International Symposium for Online Journalists in Austin, TX. I’ll add the video if they post it later.
Now as many of you know, I’m usually I’m not at a loss for words. But I really struggled to decide what to talk about today, especially in the wake of the attack this week on my hometown of Boston. Some of my fondest memories of the city are of that magical Monday, once a year each April, when everyone would line the streets and cheer on one stranger after another – encouraging them to succeed in accomplishing a little magic of their own.
I had originally planned to the role of social media in our coverage of Newtown today. But the course the events in Boston have led me – and perhaps many of us here, I suppose – to broaden what we truly need to talk about here at ISOJ.
So I’d like to discuss something that both Newton and Boston have in common, beyond the obvious horror and needless loss:
We messed up. We didn’t always get the story right. We didn’t serve the public as well as we could have.
Now, a dynamic similar to the fog of war certainly rears its head during catastrophic breaking news, and mistakes get made. It is perhaps rare indeed for a major breaking news story to be told from start to finish without some confusion getting in the way of informing the public.
As the person at NPR who sent out the tweet mistakenly reporting the death of Gabrielle Giffords, I know we are all capable of making these mistakes, and understand the reporting failures that cause them to happen. Whether we’re on-air reporters, Web producers or just members of the public with large Twitter followings, we all have the potential of getting it wrong and making matters worse.
So that’s why I’d like to talk today about some of the factors that lead to these mistakes, how they’re amplified by social media, and perhaps, how we can mitigate them better by rethinking how we engage the public.
Whether it’s Boston, or Newtown, or some other breaking story, we all kick into high gear. At every newsroom, it’s all hands on deck – battle stations. These are the moments where the public expects us to do our jobs, and do them well. These are the moments we pride ourselves in our roles as professionals. And thankfully, many of us rise to the occasion.
But in recent decades, we’ve put ourselves in a bind by creating news cycles that are faster and faster and faster. And speed is often the scurge of accuracy.
First there’s 24-hour broadcast news, where in some quarters there is a sin much greater than getting the story wrong, as you can always make a correction later. And that sin is allowing for dead air.
Dead air is unacceptable, of course, yet we can’t exactly take over everyone’s TVs or radios, hit a pause button and force them go get a cup of coffee while we sort out the facts. Apart from throwing in extra commercials, we have to fill that air time one way or another. And that creates a scenario where even the best journalists are more likely to make mistakes. In a bid to keep the coverage going, they may find themselves talking about a second gunman, or reporting on the shooter’s Facebook page that actually turns out to be his innocent brother’s. They may report breaking news of arrests in Boston, then dig deeper holes for themselves trying to explain how they were led astray by their sources. And all awhile, the broadcast rolls on. No. Dead. Air.
Now, I don’t stand here today to point fingers and throw broadcast news under the bus. Online news isn’t immune from these mistakes either. How many of us have struggled to keep our live-blogs fresh with one new update after another? How often do we post reports without a third source, or even a second one, to back it up?
And then there’s social media, where we feel even more pressure to keep the public updated as quickly as possible. As we saw this week with the supposed arrests in Boston, news organizations’ social media platforms aren’t immune from the same mistakes that occur in our broadcasts or in our websites. How many of us have typed up a tweet for a major news Twitter account and hesitated before hitting the send button, wondering, what if we’ve screwed this up? And how many of us have hit the button anyway?
Errors have always been a part of journalism. Corrections are perhaps a more recent phenomenon, but thankfully someone thought they were a good idea and came up with them. Yet lately it seems whenever there’s a public discussion of major errors we’ve made covering breaking news, they’re often eclipsed by discussions of how these mistakes wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for social media.
Social media makes for an easy target, and understandably so. Never before have we had the capacity to spread misinformation from one grapevine to the next, so broadly and so quickly. Whether it’s a mistaken tweet or Facebook post, inaccuracies take on a life of their own. But all too often I’ve heard people in our industry redirect the blame specifically to the public’s use of social media. Yes, we may have reported something wrong, but they compounded it. Or perhaps we did our jobs by not reporting a rumor, yet somehow it got out there, and now it’s everywhere because of those damn Twitter users.
Let’s face it: it’s never been easier to spread rumors. Yet it wasn’t all too long ago that these things would rarely see the light of day. We’d hear rumors while we covered a breaking story, but we could nip them in the bud. They’d be discussed in the newsroom and hopefully end up dying on the cutting room floor. We had the luxury of scrutinizing information privately. The public never need worry about a potentially damaging rumor, because we’d take care of it for them. That’s what it was all about – to report as accurately as possible and not allow the public to become misinformed. Besides, the public lacked the power to compound the problem, beyond sharing it with their immediate friends and family.
But that era is over. It no longer exists. Today, almost everyone has a device in their pocket that can capture footage or circulate information to a broader public. We no longer control the flow of information. We are no longer the media, in the most literal sense of the word, in which news happens over here, the public is over there, and we stand in the middle, sole arbiters of what gets passed across the transom and what doesn’t.
While we go about our business on air or online, the public is having its own conversations, passing along a variety of rumors. They can take on a life of their own. Some rumors that historically would’ve died on the vine now thrive online. And given the deterioration of the public’s trust of media, we should no longer be surprised when they choose to believe their friends before they believe us, even on those many occasions we’re doing a damn good job getting the story right.
Since the earliest days of journalism, our mission has been to inform the public as best we can. But despite the incredible changes we’ve seen in media and technology, we still treat the news it as a one-way street. We try to sort out the facts, then tell everyone else what we know. I inform you, and you listen. It’s almost as if all this social media stuff didn’t exist.
But we all know that’s not true. Twitter and Facebook are as real as any community that exists offline. So what should we do, now that the public can inform each other, while simultaneously ignoring us? Should we continue to treat journalism as a one-way street, when everyone else thinks they’re chatting at a block party?
I think we need to get back to a core part of journalism, and rethink what it means to inform the public. In fact, I think one good starting point can be found within NPR’s mission statement: To create a more informed public.
Now this may sound like I’m just parsing words, and to a certain extent I probably am. But there is a difference, and it’s worth discussing. To inform the public is to tell them what we think they should know. To create a more informed public is to help them become better consumers and producers of information – and hopefully achieve their full potential as active participants in civil society.
If this is indeed a worthy goal, then why aren’t we engaging the public more directly? I don’t mean engagement like encouraging them to “like” us on Facebook or click the retweet button. That is not engagement. By engagement I mean, why don’t we use these incredibly powerful tools to talk with them, listen to them, and help us all understand the world a little better? Perhaps we can even use social media to do the exact opposite of its reputation – to slow down the news cycle, help us catch our collective breaths and scrutinize what’s happening with greater mindfulness.
When a big story breaks, we shouldn’t just be using social media to send out the latest headlines or ask people for their feedback after the fact. We shouldn’t even stop at asking for their help when trying to cover a big story. We should be more transparent about what we know and don’t know. We should actively address rumors being circulated online. Rather than pretending they’re not circulating, or that they’re not our concern, we should tackle them head-on, challenging the public to question them, scrutinize them, understand where they might have come from, and why.
When we see members of the public making claims that might be questionable or flat-out wrong, we should address them directly, asking them where they got that information and why they believe it to be true. We should help them understand what it means to confirm something, and that it’s not just sharing something you heard over Facebook from a friend of your brother-in-law. Similarly, we should challenge the public when we see them parroting certain journalistic tropes such as “confirmed,” or “breaking” or “reports,” when in truth they may not understand the nuances that make these terms very, very different?
We now report in a networked world, where information spread by members of the public can be as consequential as information spread by the media. Just as we cannot afford to underplay our own mistakes, we can no longer afford to underplay the public’s role in propagating information. If we are going to embrace the notion of creating a more informed public, reporting is no longer enough. We must work harder to engage them, listen to them, teach them, learn from them. We must help them better producers, as well as consumers, of information.
If we wish to remain relevant in this networked world of ours, this must become a core part of our mission. It’s no longer enough to just inform people. We must do whatever we can to create this more informed public. And we can’t afford to wait until the next Newtown or Boston to begin anew.