Where is the line between informing and exploiting?

How much coverage is too much, and when does the saturation of coverage of an event like the Boston Marathon bombing inadvertently serve the goals of the attackers? It’s an excellent question asked by Kate Gardiner about the coverage of the explosion on Monday.

My reply was simple—perhaps simplistic, actually—we need to draw a line between informing the public and exploiting the victims of this attack. But neither she nor I really know where that line is.

The distribution of news has fundamentally changed in the nearly 12 years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It isn’t worthwhile to list all of the changes, but the rise of mobile phones with video cameras and social media—especially Twitter—have made an already ravenous appetite for instant updates nearly insatiable.

That leaves us with a few questions.

First, is that appetite healthy? Hell if I know. I’m really not sure. People much smarter than I am have made persuasive arguments about too much information being bad for you. But the appetite exists, and is rooted in simple human curiosity. From a purely practical perspective, it barely matters. You would be hard pressed to find a news organization willing to sit a story as big as the Boston explosion out, even if it’s nowhere near the Northeast. And even if one organization did, there are innumerable other sources where people can turn.

Not everyone agrees with that proposition, of course. Some think that the coverage is too much, and that it actually impedes our understanding. I’m not sure. The 24-hour news cycle—which is much older than the Internet, let’s not forget—wouldn’t exist if people weren’t consuming that information. News networks need to be more responsible, yes, but I don’t think too much information is the problem. The problem is not enough good information. Too many anchors and commentators simply talk to fill up time, and the speculation that engenders is not helpful.

Media consumers need to be careful as they decide what to consume. Cable news has a lot of advantages, but too often offers baseless speculation to fill time. And while the Internet has made it so much easier to share news, it also allows misinformation to spread at the same speed. Consumers need to be as cautious and skeptical about unverified reports as journalists should be.

That leads us to the next question: How can a news organization share information in a responsible way? There is a difference between covering a car crash and enabling people to gawk at one. So too is there a difference between keeping people informed and exploiting a tragedy to drive pageviews. I think Gardiner, along with a lot of other people I follow on Twitter, actually did a good job. They see massive amounts of information in their feeds, and they pass along information that has been verified or seems important. That includes locations of coverage for people following the news and information that could be important to people actually in Boston. I think that serves as a very good model for how to cover something like this on Twitter. And the Boston Globe did a really terrific job pulling together a story quickly that answers the questions it can and explains why it can’t answer others yet.

And to the final question, which is also the first that was asked: Are we serving the bombers’ ends with constant coverage? The answer is a resounding “maybe” with a side of I’m not sure it matters. Journalists have a duty to cover tragedies like this responsibly. That means something different than it would have a decade or more ago. But the key word is responsibly. Journalists and commentators need to be clear about what they know and what they don’t know, and put what they do know into perspective. If they do that, even if it is what the attackers want, they’ve done their job.


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