Twitter, 24-Hour News, and the Death of Journalism

There is nothing that is going to be written here that will be particularly new or incisive, but it's something that came into crystal-clear focus after yesterday's explosions at the Boston Marathon. It's sadly fitting that yesterday's horrific events happened on the same day as the Pullitzer Prize announcements, because nothing could have thrown into sharper relief the sad state of the fourth estate in today's media-dense world.

We are suffocated by opinions and speculations that have no basis in fact. We are saturated with information, but we lack insight. We have a glut of news channels, but no journalists.

I found out about the explosions the same way I find out about most new events these days - through my twitter feed. As a first alert, twitter has actually proven to be quite valuable. What's missing is the follow-up - once I hear about something, I should then be able to go to more reliable news sources to find out further information and context [1].

The 24-hour news cycle really kicked into gear in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when we were all in a state of extreme fear and uncertainty as to what, if anything, would happen next. We were glued to our TVs because we wanted to know to what extent the attacks would continue, and we wanted to be informed of rescue efforts and gain any sort of answers or insight as to why this had happened. Sadly, as it has been perpetuated in the years since, it has slackened into a gross extrapolation of the kind of sensationalist, speculative fear-mongering and ratings-hungry hate porn that it has been ever since journalistic decisions began to be mandated by corporate ownership rather than journalistic impulse.

It's only natural that the public response to yesterday's events would have been a manner of blind panic that follows any such disruption of our sense of security - is Al Qaeda at it again? Is it an Oklahama-style attack by an anti-government nutjob? Even worse have right-wing Christian extremists finally taken up suicide bombing? These irrational, fear-based thoughts certainly raced through my mind in the immediate aftermath of the explosions, and my instinctual response, whether I should have known better or not, was to turn on the TV and seek out some sort of context. Unfortunately, CNN anchors where indulging in the same kind of blind, unsubstantiated speculation as the most misinformed twitter minions.

Once again, it's natural to be in a state of speculative fear after such an event, but what's inexcusable is to engage in such when you're a journalistic institution whose job is to keep people informed. Here's a sample of some of the phrases uttered on-air yesterday afternoon:

"We don't want to speculate, but is there reason...to think this was an act of terrorism?"

"That's one source on the ground, not confirmed."

"No rocket has been fired in North Korea...at least, not yet."

"One thing we know, the first information is always wrong."

Then stop fucking reporting it.

Not once in the midst of all of this rampant speculation did the anchors break in to say, "Hey, by the way, while we're talking about all of this, here's a list of the best ways for those in the area to help." There was no effort to guide possible responders to lend a hand without getting in the way of official efforts or further safety sweeps. There was no on-screen display of the phone number that could be used to try to get in touch with loved ones in the wake of inundated phone lines and suspended cell service. When the news source tweeting the most up-to-date information is the Hollywood Reporter, something is skewed.

Entertainment media kind of won the journalistic day yesterday, all things told. Most of the movie bloggers I follow were re-tweeting information and safety tips, and comedians were spreading official bulletins in an effort to get them to the most possible followers [2]. Within hours of the blasts, while CNN was still trying to think of new ways to ask themselves what manner of terrorist attack it could have been, Baddass Digest, a geek-leaning entertainment website, had posted a fairly comprehensive article on what readers could do to help in the wake of the tragedy, as well as a thoughtful initial reflection on the context of the situation and reaction.

Yes, the nature and timing of the explosions, given not only the meaning of Patriot's Day in Boston but also the fact that a holiday with a name that potentially loaded happened to fall on Tax Day this year, opened up a lot of possible motivations, and those are motivations that need to be explored - after you've done enough digging into the facts to have any basis upon which to draw such conclusions. Because let's be honest, the context of yesterday's blasts points more towards a very specific types of homegrown nut-job than any sort of coordinated attack from a major terrorist organization [3]. Gather the facts, and then report them, even if that means not being first or, apparently even worse, not being able to immediately put your own personal stamp on a national tragedy [5].

Eventually the most reasonable option yesterday was to shut off the TV (always the sanest option in this kind situation) and take a bit of time to enjoy life rather than give in to fear. As the facts come to light in the coming days, I will seek out ways to be as involved in aid and recovery as I can from afar, and I will try to figure out who to rely upon in the future for concise, valuable, and accurate information in times of crisis. Twitter and the blogosphere are not quite there yet - they're a potentially worthy complement, but there are gaping holes in our news media as print coverage continues its death rattle and traditional outlets scramble to catch up with the ensuing changes, and those holes are being filled with empty words and even emptier personalities. Lord knows I don't want this to read as hagiography of traditional media outlets, because they certainly played into the same kind of base exploitation of fear and ignorance as their modern counterparts, but there's a lot more at stake than the death of print media, and we need to be more worried about it.

I want to borrow from Film Crit Hulk and dedicate this article to the people who ran towards the explosions to help. Even though, yet again, they didn't seem to get the coverage they deserved.

- cs

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that CNN did, in fact, at some point begin displaying Red Cross help lines as part of their coverage. Either that began after I turned the TV off or, quite possibly, I missed it. I should also point out, in fairness, that I don't mean to pick on CNN exclusively - it applies to the whole industry, really. They just happen to be who I turned to yesterday; this would likely apply equally to Fox, MSNBC et al. I have no doubt that there are people working for these organizations who have the best intentions and care deeply about what they do and do it for the right reasons (even though I doubt that their voices reach as highly as they should). My ire is not neccesarily directed at them.

[1] Lord knows that twitter has it's own drawbacks, especially as far as extended reactions to this kind of thing. The general conversation quickly moved back to people self-righteously flaming others for tweeting about anything else, and my feeds quickly got overwhelmed with fictional tripe about 8 year olds who had been running for a cause, which is a special kind of nefariousness - yes, an 8-year old was killed in the blast, but that is certainly a horrendous enough tragedy in its own right and doesn't need to be co-opted by some "greater meaning" for the sake of the kind of easy sentiment that people can simply re-post in place of taking any kind of significant action or engaging in conversation.

[2] Full disclosure, the bulk of people I follow on twitter are bloggers and comedians, but I'm also subscribed to most of the major news outlets, and they weren't anywhere near on the ball. The New York Times was still running pre-scheduled tweets about their Pullitzer bounty, ironically enough.

[3] Yes, I'm speculating, but I'm a guy whose avatar is a dog-man. There's a bit of a difference [4].

[4] "God I hope it's a crazy white guy," Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani comedian, tweeted yesterday afternoon (roughly the same time that [unsubstantiated and eventually shown to be false] rumors began floating that a Saudi suspect had been detained on the scene). And, as long as we're speculating, let's be honest, it most likely was, given the circumstances.

[5] This is the truly disturbing trend - in a lot of ways, network coverage has gotten to a point that it's no different than celebrities vapidly posting that their "thoughts and prayers" are with the victims - cynically rushing to associate their brand with whatever is getting the most attention in that day's new cycle.