If journalism is the first draft of history, it’s starting to look a lot like a mangled Google doc with too many approved editors this week.
The only thing more ‘disgusting’ — as Jimmy Kimmel so aptly put it in his monologue Monday night — than the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday is the way traditional news outlets have handled the coverage on social media and on their websites.
Since, unfortunately, there are few, verified, newsworthy updates coming out of the bombing itself, the media critic hive mind has been quick to call foul on how the news broke. I find myself repeating some age-old maxims.
1) Regret Your Errors
At this point, we know the New York Post and the New York Times messed up initial counts of deaths and casualties. The Times corrected the information without a note. It makes you wonder how they win Pulitzers and how they plan on convincing the public that their brand is worth fighting for. Yes, corrections in print were always tucked away on the editorial page; you had to be a real stickler and seek them out.
The one, beautiful thing about digital layouts is that it is so easy to fix mistakes. Calling attention to them doesn’t mess with the user experience. If anything, it makes it more interesting, like reporter and reader are in a real conversation. The format should go something like this:
UPDATE Date and Time: INSERT YOUR CORRECTION HERE
2) Give People a Break
From the Times‘ banner headline about their aforementioned Pulitzers, to Kristof’s ‘low blow’ personal tweet, and casual headline adjectives mishaps, things go wrong in the digital world when big news breaks. It goes wrong all the time, but we notice it more when we’re trolling for news. I understand the need to meet your post quota for the day, but you’re clogging up my Twitter feed. There should be a quota for how many ‘XX Publication Messes Up Homepage’ you get to write.
What would be more useful is for editors to go into crisis mode when news like Monday’s bombing happens. Someone does the reporting and someone checks scheduled posts to make sure nothing silly goes up in tandem, sends an email or shouts across the newsroom ‘Tweet carefully, guys!’ Be careful with your words, so you’re not a Gawker
punch headline. Digital/social media editor means editing your digital/social media content.
3) Wait a Minute
Matt Roller’s tweet has circled around the Internet and I’m going to repeat here:
Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that.
— Matt Roller (@rolldiggity) April 15, 2013
I find myself reading less opinion news this week. I treat tragedy like I do elections. There’s a lot of news, a surplus of news, surrounding events like this. During the election, I went on a strict media diet and stuck to NPR’s soothing hourly updates and longform reads from my favorite magazines. It was a refreshing experience. Twitter and online pubs start to feel like a SoulCycle workout — everyone’s yelling at you when you just want to do the right thing and keep up. Sticking to ‘old(er) fashioned’ news outlets is like doing yoga: you can focus on what’s really important and go from there. We can’t stop the digital cycle, but moments like this are a time for real news organizations to shine.
It’s not just that social media spreads rumors and conspiracy theories and false information, it’s that it clouds judgement. You want to stand out in the crowd. If someone like me, a junkie for reading material, stops clicking this week, imagine what the layperson feels like when they open their news aggregator in the morning. If the first five headlines on your homepage all include stories that link back to the other stories on your homepage, you’re doing something wrong. Actual reporting, actual news is what wins in the long run.
What’s your strategy for reporting breaking news? How did your organization work this week?