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A reflection on the reporting of “breaking news” during the Boston Manhunt


There has been more than enough written on the tragic Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent shoot-out death of one suspect and arrest of the other. I definitely don’t want to be adding to the plethora of opinions out there and emerging law enforcement criticisms and conspiracy theories. The focus of this post is merely to share a few thoughts on how I found myself tracking these events as they were unfolding and how the reporting and consumption of breaking news continues to undergo a massive transformation.

What do I mean?

In the pre-social media past, most news junkies such as myself would tune into a breaking news channel (e.g. CNN Live) during an event like this and simply watch it unfold. Not so much for the commentary as for the fact that these large  news networks simply had the most resources (i.e. technology, money and manpower) to bring the viewer front and centre to where the event was occurring. Over time, as the social/participatory web evolved,  tools such as Twitter became the go-to source of information for raw unverified and unfiltered content (if you knew how to filter this channel). I specifically remember conducting a workshop while scanning live real-time tweets of individuals stuck in the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower during the  2008 Mumbai Attacks. Tools such as this ended up changing the breaking news cycle from 24hrs to 60 minutes to 60 seconds over time.

So what’s different now?

For starters, there are now 2.4 billion users of the internet the majority of whom are accessing it using a mobile device and have at one point or another participated in the social web. The social web is now the new norm. While, not everybody is a heavily engaged content creator, enough people are to influence the more passive users of social media and in turn everyone else who happens to be “googling” for the latest information (especially during breaking news events).

How did I keep track of what was going in Boston?

For starters, I didn’t turn on my television set at all. Not even once. Instead, I created a multi-platform monitoring station comprised of social, traditional and raw content. Over the years I have experimented with hundreds of social media monitoring and visualization tools (including some very expensive ones), however when it comes to real-time information gathering, only a few became relevant to me the minute the FBI officially released the two photos of the suspects and launched a state-wide manhunt.

The events in Boston (especially the day of the manhunt) sparked what was in my opinion the worlds largest real-time crowdsourcing effort during a criminal investigation. In terms of my own role, I tried to avoid adding unnecessary noise and instead focused on listening and observing how people were using the various  platforms available to them, since understanding these behaviours is of great interest to me.

My own “listening” toolbox (using only free tools) was as follows:

  • Trendsmap –> Displayed trending tweets, photos and videos occurring in the Boston area. I actually had two browser tabs open with this tool. One for the trend details and the other for a tweet word cloud layered over a map of Boston.
  • Twitterfall –> Tracked the word “Boston” (including the top 3 hashtags at the time –> identified these using  the free Nexalogy Hootsuite App).  I was also tracking tweets within 25km of Boston and gave them a unique colour code.
  • Hootsuite –> Created a custom dashboard where I had separate columns tracking traditional media (CNN, NBC, FOX, CBC,CBS, BBC etc…), boston bombing related hashtags, emergency responders and authorities, official City of Boston accounts, and a custom Twitter list I created of people tweeting from the locked-down areas.
  • Scanner Radio –> Had a constant audio stream playing back the police and EMS scanner from Boston, Cambridge and Watertown in real-time. This was at one point shut-down due to the sheer amount of people using it now that there are so many free police scanner apps out there. However, even though it was shut-down I found someone on Reddit who happened to have a physical police scanner at home in Boston and decided to stream it live via UStream.
  • Google Maps –> I used satellite view to get a better understanding of where the perimeters were being set-up based on the police scanner. I also used street view to take a look at the boat (also mentioned in the police scanner) once the address of the second suspect’s hiding spot was being circulated.
  • Reddit –> This was by far my go-to source for raw information and arguably the most up-to-date, unbiased and factual live reporting that was happening during the entire ordeal. In particular the “Live Boston Update Thread Parts 1-9” with a few dedicated authors and thousands of commentators. Now before you point out that Reddit’s general manager had to apologize for the community’s behaviour, read Mathew Ingram’s take on the whole ordeal in “Three things that Reddit did right during the Boston bombings and why that matters“.

What about traditional new channels?

In addition to all of the above tools, I would rotate between a few live online streams of traditional news networks (CNN , CBS, ABC, etc…) , which were all very painful to watch and listen to. Clearly the news anchors and their teams had the same access to the info I did (and most likely much more), however for obvious reasons they couldn’t  report it until it was confirmed by solid sources.

And therein lies the modern “breaking news” dilemma: The sheer amount of people scanning back channels and then “reporting” what they hear or see via social media has increased to such a proportion that by the time the anchor has a chance to report anything backed by solid sources , it’s already old news.

Is this a good thing?

It is for people like me, who question media in general and like to get to the raw source to make their own speculations and conclusions (in private). Most people however, still prefer to get nicely curated, easily digestible content from a well established reputable news source. In an effort to meet those needs, the major networks now take more risks and as a result often report the raw “thinking out loud” that occurs on social media, before it’s verified accurately.  This both affects the quality of journalism for those tuning in (especially if they aren’t media literate) and feeds the emotionally driven vigilantes and abusers of social media channels who will do anything for their content to start trending and perhaps get picked up by a network (often putting innocent people at risk).

Final thoughts

Personally, I think there is a growing need for media literacy training.  It’s 2013 and yet the vast majority of people don’t seem to understand the difference between journalism , live citizen reporting , social media commentary, and the raw data/content that they happen to come across. Even the people merely doing the liking, re-tweeting and sharing need to be cautious of their actions, which in aggregate can severely affect the investigation at hand or compromise it entirely.

In short, the current method of reporting breaking news by traditional news networks is simply not sustainable now that the raw unfiltered “breaking news”  is public and so widely accessible. It needs to change, but more importantly, all of us need to smarten up, act more responsibly and understand the variety of new roles we each now play.

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One Comment

  1. Ryan Androsoff

    Couldn’t agree with you more Mike. Was a pretty incredible experience to be reading tweets from people on the streets while listening to a live police scanner during the manhunt Thursday night and Friday morning. Aside from the emotion of the event itself, it speaks to how much the landscape of news and information is changing and how both traditional and new media haven’t quite adjusted yet to what this means.

    The other tool that played a big role for me on the day of the bombings was Facebook. Having lived in Boston for two years I still have lots of friends there, many of whom have run the marathon before, and my thoughts immediately turned to them. It was remarkable over the course of that afternoon to see them all “check-in” via Facebook (even when the cell networks were down, Facebook still worked). I could almost feel the sigh of relief as friends let their online social networks know that they were OK.

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