Breaking news isn’t broken

Despite the numerous tweets and stories since Monday, when the Boston Marathon bombing saga began, breaking news isn’t broken—or at least, it’s no more broken than it’s ever been.

That’s not to say the coverage of the bombing, manhunt and arrests weren’t in some cases terrible. CNN did a particularly excreable job. But why does that surprise us? CNN does a terrible job covering a lot of breaking news, even when it’s low-impact stuff like a disabled cruise ship1. Remember how badly they bungled the 2000 election calls, moving Florida from one column to the other instead of just admitting that they didn’t know? Let’s take it as read that filling a 24-hour network with news is extremely difficult and a job I’d be unwilling to take, even if I were qualified to do so. And let’s also take as read the fact that covering breaking news is really hard in a lot of ways.

The problems that CNN and other 24-hour networks had (and indeed, none of them had a banner week) are just magnified versions of the problems that everyone has always had when covering a quickly developing story.

  • There is a lot of incorrect information floating around, especially at the beginning of a big breaking news story. With newspapers, you might not necessarily see that, because it could be corrected in the print edition. But for TV news, which fears dead air above all things, that incorrect information finds its way in and has to be corrected later.
  • Breaking news is by turns terrifying, exhilarating, stressful and extraordinary boring. There are large stretches of time when you don’t know anything new. That’s OK, unless you’re running a 24-hour news feed. Then you have to find something to fill the time. And too often it’s either baseless speculation or just plain bad information.
  • There are a lot more news sources now, and they deliver often conflicting results. If you’re getting those conflicting reports while on air, it isn’t easy to figure out which are more reliable. And if you’re getting news on Twitter, you have to worry about not only if it came from a reliable source, but if the person re-tweeting something got it from a reliable source. It’s uncertainty all the way down.

Speaking of Twitter, it’s another factor in why you’re seeing the mistakes that once would have been invisible to you. Choire Sicha, who still has the best name on the Internet, suggests that over-zealous social media editors and twittering reporters are part of the problem. He rightly points out that some of the tweets coming from major news organizations sounded a lot like the things you’d hear if you were in a newsroom. That includes speculation and a bit of kvetching. And some were just tweeting the things that they saw on TV, especially cable news networks. Sicha is right that doing that fails the signal to noise ratio test. And plenty of people on Twitter, journalists and non-journalists alike, were live-tweeting scanner traffic. I understand why people just interested in the events would do something like that—they don’t know any better. But for a journalist to do that is inexcusable. Scanner traffic is notoriously unreliable, and most journalists know anything they here on the scanner needs to be verified.

But despite the doom and gloom, plenty of organizations did a good job covering the bombing, the manhunt, the tense Friday lockdown and the eventual capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Boston Globe did truly amazing work. Unsurpring, since it’s a great paper and it was a hometown story2. NPR also did a fantastic job, keeping speculation to a minimum, sharing insight from people affected by the lockdown, and putting things into context. And Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition even tweeted some very wise words.

That tweet speaks to the larger tension here: People (and news organizations) want two mutually exclusive things—reliable, true, well-sourced information and a constant flow of updates that turn into a larger narrative about the event. Some places did a really good job of walking that line, but it always will require compromises. Reuters, the Globe, the New York Times and the Washington Post all had good liveblogs that updated regularly with new information and helped put things into context. There were errors, but they were corrected quickly.

But I don’t want this to be about winners and losers. Rather than focusing solely the mistakes that were made (there were a lot of them), it’s more productive to realize that the way we report and consume the news is changing quickly. News organizations will find their way (except the New York Post, which remains among the most reprehensible news organizations on the planet today). Until we reach that golden age (hint: that would be never), it’s worthwhile to talk about what news consumers can do to stay well informed.

  • Turn off the TV. Seriously. A cable news network will almost never do the best job at covering a breaking news story like this. While they’ll have the best visuals, they’ll also have really poor analysis and a lot of speculation. If you must watch TV, do so in short doses.
  • Figure out what you’re looking for. Do you want quick updates, larger context, photos or video of the scene or something else? Let what you’re looking for guide your choices.
  • Find one source that’s reliable and stick with it. Don’t forget about local and regional media—they’ll often (but by no means always) do a better job than anyone else at covering the events.
  • On Twitter find some reliable people to follow and be wary of re-tweets of new information, especially from non-news sources. I saw one tweet from Anonymous that, unsurprisingly, ended up being false. Anonymous is great at a lot of stuff, but not being a news organization. Treat tweets like that with all the skepticism they deserve, and be especially wary of any account that’s reporting something quite different from other reports you’ve seen.
  • If you’re using Twitter, don’t be a dick and be careful about what you re-tweet, especially if you have a lot of followers. It can be exciting to feel like you’re sharing important information, but always consider the source. And if you re-tweet something that ends up being false, retract it as quickly as you can.
  • If you’re a reporter using Twitter, think before you post. If that seems obvious, it wasn’t necessarily followed very well this week. Think about whether your information is verified, if it adds anything to the conversation, and if it’s something you have direct knowledge of, rather than being second (or third, or fourth) hand.
  • Don’t be afraid to step away. If you let Fear of Missing Out take over, you aren’t doing yourself a favor. As much as we’d all like to know what happens as soon as it does, that doesn’t mean we need to. Accept that you’ll miss some things and catch up with them later. This isn’t a contest to see who can be most informed most quickly.

There were mistakes made by social media, newspapers, TV channels and just about anyone else who was trying to cover the Boston bombings and the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. But those mistakes are part of the process, and are just more obvious now than they would have been five, 10 or even 25 years ago. As Mathew Ingram points out, breaking news isn’t broken, it’s evolving, and it’s up to us to help it along.

And the Future Journalism Project reminds us that the way news is put together isn’t pretty, but we’re better off knowing it. They also offer some really useful pointers on following breaking news while staying sane.

As Twitter becomes a major means of communicating breaking news stories, the demands on media consumers are increasing. It’s no longer enough to just assume what’s on TV or in the newspaper is accurate. Now consumers have to do some of the critical thinking themselves. And if that’s the only thing that comes out of this, it’s still a positive development.

1: We won’t get in to why CNN covers stories like that in the first place, and instead leave it for another time.

2: Seriously, if they don’t win a Pulitzer for breaking news coverage, that would be a travesty. But it wouldn’t be the first such travesty.