The events which transpired in Boston a few weeks ago will undoubtedly be remembered as an event where traditional journalism, citizen journalism and police investigation collided into an information “big bang” of sorts. Outside of wondering why the bombers did what they did, myself and many others are are still trying to figure what happened; where exactly do each of those three elements stand at this point?
As part of Brooke Gladstone’s “On the Media” program, she interviewed her producer Alex Goldman about the effect of twitter upon the development of this story. She speaks of a “zing of authenticity” brought out from the massive deluge of information being tweeted during the pursuit of the second bombing suspect after the shooting of an officer at MIT.
As this was all happening, I found myself wrapped up in the excitement of moment, searching sites like twitter and reddit for the latest information on the shootings but knowing that the information I was getting was not yet corroborated and verified. This sentiment was also echoed by Gladstone and Goldman in their discussion. Goldman states that while it went against all his journalistic instincts to report unconfirmed and uncorroborated information straight from the police scanners, there was a sort of “thrill to being the first or close to first to reporting a story.”
Like Gladstone, I found that because of the ‘zing of authenticity’ in the way I was receiving my news (completely raw) my frame for the story was once of chaos, confusion and adrenaline. I’m sure other stories I’ve heard in the news in the past portrayed the same feeling, however experiencing a story instead of simply reading it was frightening, exciting and an adrenaline rush.
As part of their 2012 State of the Media report (read the report here), the Pew Research center found that at the time of their study, social networking sites such as facebook and twitter functioned primarily as an additional way to get the news and not as a replacement source. I think this point is easily proven in the way the news from Boston was being reported. Everyone (myself included) was feeling the need to get the latest information; to know exactly what was happening. However, we also wanted news from a verifiable source; which is where our following of traditional news sources such as Boston Globe came into play. These sources offered the latest information that was verified and confirmed, providing a way for us to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ so to speak (in reference to the flood of news from social media).
In the report by the Pew Center, it also mentions some very interesting statistics about twitter and the demographics who use it.
- First, twitter users are more mobile. The “zing of authenticity” was more readily available to users because of their mobile lifestyle. Twitter notifications and hashtag searches brought people the news directly as it was happening. Traditional news sources take more time to verify sources, apply formatting and create a news package ready to consume. Many people downloaded a police scanner app in order to listen to the news as it was happening and were able to post/tweet directly from their mobile device.
- Second, between Facebook and twitter, facebook was the leader for go to news links. I see this as something that had changed a little with this event. Both social media sites provided a way to link back to a news organizations website, but facebook doesn’t provide the immediacy of updates which twitter can. I would argue that more people followed the story on twitter because of this than anything else
Back in 2010, Schrøder and Larsen conducted a study concerning how media was shifting to new media from a convergence standpoint. While much has changed even since 2010, some of their findings are particularly interesting when we look for the benefits and harms of our search for the ‘zing’ in news stories. They discuss a concept referred to as “perceived worthwhileness” which states the following:
- Time available
- The affordance of “public connection”
- Normative constraints
- Participatory affordances (Schrøder & Larsen, 2010)
Each of these factors above contribute to the positive sides of the zing. Many times, the time we have available is short; we need our news information now whether or not its 100% accurate. Maybe we want to contribute, but don’t have the time to put together a full news package. Social media like twitter connects the public in a way like never before; creating a global village where we care about the things happening in different parts of the world instead of our own city/state. Price is a huge factor, because social media is free. No need to pay, advertising is minimal and there are no barriers to entry. Schrøder and Larsen (2010) state that normative constraints are the the pressures we feel from certain groups to participate, and they give the example of “you are willing to be seen reading a free daily on the commuter train.” Participatory affordances is the ways that people of a different generation may be able to get involved in the news and contribute (Schrøder and Larsen, 2010).
I think the highlights and positive aspects of searching for the ‘zing’ have been well stated above. But what about the downsides?
In Gladstone’s interview with Alex Goldman, he brings up the fact that as people were searching for the zing, much information was being propagated which wasn’t correct. Fake twitter accounts were created for the suspects which led to information being said on the scanner by police which wasn’t true. That information from the scanner was picked up by the twitter-sphere and reddit-sphere and propagated further into the depths of the internet. Goldman even states that after the dust settled, he felt a little shameful for the way he was reporting, as it went against everything that he learned in journalism school. This way of looking at news shows that the ‘zing’ can override ethical concerns if the time is short and the public wants to know (Schrøder & Larsen, 2010).
It probably didn’t help that everyone and their dog became reporters from twitter, since things were happening in a quarantined neighborhood; leaving people no other choice than to become citizen reporters. This brings up another negative to the ‘zing’ of authenticity: people who posted messages on various social media about the happenings around them provided valuable insight into the chaos of the story. What they didn’t realize is that by posting exactly what was happening around them, they could have been providing valuable logistical information about the police to the suspect (if the suspect was following the events on social media). Luckily, that was not the case; however that fear led the police to call radio silence and start using different channels and codes; further adding to the “incomplete narrative” that Gladstone describes in her interview.
Simon Dumenco, in an opinion piece analyzed some of problems with twitter, and I think he highlights the downside to the ‘zing’ very well. He said:
“But because I’m so immersed in the Twittersphere, I get an almost toxic level of exposure to Twitter at its worst. Basically, Twitter at its worst throws random bits of information in its users’ faces with great velocity and insistence, but absolutely no context, causing no end of confusion and consternation. (2011, emphasis added)”
Therein lies the ultimate negative when dealing with the “zing of authenticity:” Context. No matter what you do, it is impossible to convey all aspects of a story in 140 characters or less. Yes, you can post multiple times, but they may not necessarily show up in the same order for your followers. If your searching for hashtags for a particular story, your posts are entering a pool of possibly millions of other peoples tweets, and your post can get lost in the deluge in an instant.
Dumenco continues with the following:
“…there’s nothing intrinsic to Twitter’s interface and presentation that directs users to the truth. In other words, at its worst, Twitter is like the dregs of the cable-news talk shows: a deranged Bizarro world where half-truths and outright lies are breathlessly given momentum (2011).”
And there it is. The ‘zing’ provides us with immediate source of gaining our news and information through a variety of different means and methods. It allows us to feel like we’re part of the story; maybe even helping to solve it. But false information can easily be spread as we disseminate information before verifying it, and could change the lives of innocent families and people.
Can this dichotomy exist? Of course it can. Common sense goes a long way, and maybe we ALL don’t need to be reporters or retweeting the news unless we’re directly involved somehow. I look forward to see what the future has in store for news reporting as we keep treading this thin line in search of the ‘zing’.
DUMENCO, S. (2011). How Twitter can stop its descent into a cable-news-style disinformation network. Advertising Age, 82(15), 14. Retrieved from