Tag Archives: Jay Rosen

Blog like a journalist

The revolutionary gleam has faded. Yet blogging remains at the center of the digital media toolbox.

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Previously published at Medium.

From the vantage point of 2014, offering advice on how to write a blog feels a little like telling people how to write a proper newspaper article in 2005. “Blogging is dead,” says the (ahem) blogger Jason Kottke, overtaken by social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

But if the revolutionary gleam has worn off, blogging nevertheless is still a valuable tool for anyone practicing digital journalism, whether it be commentary, original reporting, photography, or video. I’ve been blogging since 2002 — on my own at first, then as the media columnist for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix, and since 2005 as the publisher and almost-sole author of Media Nation.

These days there are many places online where you can share your work — not just social platforms but also online publications such as the Huffington Post and Medium, which combine paid content with unpaid blog posts. (God help us, but such hybrids are known in some circles as “platishers.”) So why set up a solo blog?

The reason is that you need an online home that is controlled by you — not by Mark Zuckerberg or Arianna Huffington or some other digital mogul seeking to get rich from your content. Moreover, you need to establish an online identity. If you don’t, others will do it for you. “You can’t allow others to define who you are, or control the way you are perceived. This is especially true today for people in the public eye, but the more we do online the more it’ll be true for the rest of us, too,” writes Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive. “To the extent that it’s possible to do so, you should control the reference point for people who want to know more about you and your ideas.” (In 2006 I profiled Gillmor for CommonWealth magazine.)

Dan Gillmor

Dan Gillmor

Yes, I’ve uploaded this essay to Medium. I also occasionally self-publish at the Huffington Post and am a (too-) active member of Twitter and Facebook. But I’ll repost this article at Media Nation, as I do with all my work to which I have retained copyright. I don’t have complete control — I use the free blogging platform WordPress.com, and I must adhere to its policies. But I can back up my work and take it with me, and it would be easy to switch to self-hosting using free WordPress.org software if I felt the need. Just as important, the URL for Media Nation is my name: dankennedy.net.

So what is a blog? Taking the most expansive definition possible, a blog consists of content, usually text or mostly text, that is published online in reverse chronological order. That would include everything from the Washington Post’s breaking-news blog to Lisa Bonchek Adams’s diary-style blog about living with metastatic breast cancer. Dave Winer, an early Internet thinker and coder who writes the blog Scripting News, has a more specific definition, which he first gave voice to in 2003. Winer writes:

A blog is the unedited voice of a person.

The lack of editing is central, because it’s one person who’s responsible for every word. When you click the Publish button you should feel butterflies, at least sometimes, because there’s no one to pass the buck to. If someone else wrote the headline, or did a copy edit, or even reviewed what you wrote and critiqued it before it went out, it’s still writing, but it is not a blog.

I don’t believe we need to think about blogs quite that narrowly. For instance, if a journalist asks her editor to read a sensitive post before publishing, that doesn’t mean she’s not writing a blog. Still, there’s no question that a journalistic blog — which is what we are concerned about here — is different from other kinds of journalistic writing: less formal, more conversational, often with no traditional reporting (but never without research), and aimed at a small but passionate audience. (As David Weinberger and others have said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.”)

How to write a good journalistic blog post

There are many ways that a journalist can go about writing a good blog post. It might be a sentence or two. It might be 500 words. But I think the essence of a worthwhile post can be boiled down to several elements:

  1. Call your audience’s attention to something it doesn’t know — for instance, an environmental blogger might write about a new study regarding electric cars. Above all, don’t be boring. The lede you write for a blog post might be different from what you would write for a news story, but you still need to grab the reader by the throat and not let go.
  2. Link to the source of your information, which could be a news article or possibly the study itself. Quote a bit from the source, keeping in mind that most of your readers won’t actually click. Shorter quotes can be put in quotation marks; longer quotes should be blockquoted. (Please note that I’m not talking about the sort of blog post that summarizes a news story so thoroughly that there is no incentive to click. I’m talking about a true value-added post. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.)
  3. Bring in other sources of information. Although there’s nothing wrong with a short one-source blog post, you add value when you pull in other sources, link to them, and attempt to make sense of them.
  4. Offer your own perspective and analysis so that your readers take away something of value that goes beyond the sources you’re quoting. If you are working for a news organization that does not normally allow you to express your opinion, then don’t. But a first-person conversational tone is appropriate. If expressing opinions is part of your job description, then have at it. In all cases, though, your tone and approach should remain journalistic. One good question to ask yourself: Is this something I would want to show a prospective employer?

Here is a blog post I wrote earlier this year about the sale of the Providence Journal that encompasses all of the elements I discuss above. Please note, though, that you could scroll through many pages of Media Nation and find only a few that are as thorough.

Some additional guidelines to keep in mind:

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Ta-Nehesi Coates

Choose a beat that is narrow — but not too narrow. The best blogs are specialty sites where you can learn everything there is to know about a subject and where the blogger’s enthusiasm comes through. That is what you should aspire to. But if you pick too narrow a subject, you may find yourself hard-pressed to find enough reading material on which to feed. Boston restaurants? No problem. Ethiopian restaurants in Boston? Eh, probably not. You might make it through a week. But what are you going to do after that?

Compile a wide-ranging reading list. And keep compiling. If your blog is about climate change, you are going to want to put together a list of blogs, websites, and Twitter feeds related to that topic that you check every day. If your blog is a supplement to your regular work as a beat reporter, you might be doing what is sometimes called beat blogging — sharing short stories that might not be of general enough interest for your news organization, keeping on top of developments in your field, and interacting with your audience. (Steve Buttry offers some worthwhile thoughts about beat blogging; he has also written a good beginner’s guide to blogging.)

Maintain a conversation with the “former audience.” Dan Gillmor coined the phrase, and Jay Rosen has written about “the people formerly known as the audience.” They were referring to formerly passive news consumers who have been empowered by technology to talk back to us and among themselves. Your audience is a valuable resource. Tend to the comments on your blog. Always posts links to your blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, which is not only a good way to promote your work but is also where much of the online conversation has migrated in recent years. Remember the Dan Gillmor adage that your readers know more than you do — which is not to say that collectively they know more than you, but that someone in your audience might. Much of reporting consists of finding people who know more than we do and talking with them. Your blog (and your social-media presence) can make that easier.

Don’t try to read people’s minds. This is specialized advice, but since I write opinionated media criticism, it’s something I wrestle with from time to time. Another way of putting it is that you shouldn’t ascribe motives unless you’re willing to pick up the phone and do the reporting. For example, it’s fine to observe that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox is soft (if you think that’s the case and can offer evidence) and that the Globe’s owner, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. But it’s out of bounds to speculate without interviewing the principals that Globe staff members are afraid of angering Henry, or that Henry must have sent out an edict of some sort. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions, and each has its place. Speculation is neither fact nor opinion and has no place in your blog.

Learn to use photos within the bounds of copyright law. I like to run photos with my blog posts, but I know I can’t run a photo that is the copyrighted property of, say, the Associated Press or the New York Times. Fortunately, there are troves of photos online that you can use without payment, many of them through Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons. Be respectful of the photographer by crediting it as he or she would like and by linking to the photo. Here is an example of how I handle such credits. (You may be interested in this Q&A I did with the photographer, Gage Skidmore, for the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

Some bloggers worth paying attention to

The best way to become a good writer is to read as much good writing as you can. The best way to become a good blogger is to study blogs by people who know what they’re doing. Here are some examples from my own personal list and from my followers on Facebook and Twitter. You’ll find a range of approaches and topics here.

Note: This is just a tiny sample. I’ve left out many people, including friends, especially if they are white men writing about politics — the single most common type of blogger. If you’d like more recommendations, please take a look at the blogroll on Media Nation — and see who the people below are linking to.

Andrew Sullivan. A pioneering blogger and a former editor of The New Republic, Sullivan’s The Dish is a model in terms of linking, quoting, offering his own commentary, and posting with the regularity of a Stakhanovite. Sullivan writes most frequently about politics, but nothing is off limits. He is not on my daily must-read list, but strictly in terms of craft and discipline, he may be without peer.

Jay Rosen. The New York University journalism professor’s blog, PressThink, is perhaps the most influential in future-of-journalism conversations. Rosen writes a type of blog that I particularly admire — long, well-thought-out posts in which he attempts to make sense of many strands of information. His attention to comments is impeccable as well.

Adam Gaffin. The founder and editor of Universal Hub, which tracks and excerpts from several hundred blogs and websites in the Boston area, as well as from mainstream news sources. Updated multiple times a day, the emphasis is on the sources, not the writer — although Gaffin’s wicked sense of humor often breaks through. In 2008 I profiled him for CommonWealth magazine.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. A national correspondent at The Atlantic and an occasional columnist for the New York Times, Coates blogs powerfully and intelligently on issues related to race and culture. Beyond his blog, his essay “The Case for Reparations” may be the most important magazine article published so far in 2014.

Meg Heckman

Meg Heckman

Meg Heckman. A journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire whose blog, A site of her own, focuses on “women, tech, journalism.”

C.J. Chivers. A war correspondent for the New York Times, his blog is called The Gun.

Virginia Postrel. A libertarian and early blogger, Postrel writes the Dynamist Blog, which is worth a look.

Jim Romenesko. The original media blogger, Romenesko moved from blogging on his own to working for the Poynter Institute, and is now on his own once again at JimRomenesko.com. Essential news-biz gossip.

Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay. Their On Politics blog is a good example of a beat blog, as Donnis and MacKay cover politics for Rhode Island Public Radio.

Michael Marotta. His blog, Vanyaland, is a respected guide to alternative rock.

Marjorie Arons-Barron. Former editorial director at WCVB-TV (Channel 5), she writes a blog — often with political reporting — on politics and public affairs.

Mark Garfinkel. A staff photographer for the Boston Herald whose website, Picture Boston, is an excellent example of a local photojournalism blog.

Photo credits: Blogger (cc) by European Parliament; Dan Gillmor by Joi Ito; Ta-Nehesi Coates by David Shankbone; Meg Heckman by Dan Kennedy. All photos published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Pierre Omidyar’s dicey embrace of nonprofit status

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Pierre Omidyar

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who’s part of the high-profile news project being launched by the tech entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar, writes that the operation’s journalism will be incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

But will it really be that simple? As I wrote earlier this year, the IRS has cracked down on 501(c)(3) status for journalism, apparently (it’s not entirely clear) because the agency doesn’t consider journalism to be an approved “educational” activity.

Rosen calls the venture, to be named First Look Media, a “hybrid” that melds for-profit and nonprofit operations: there will also be a for-profit technology company that, if it becomes profitable, will subsidize the journalism.

But that’s not what we normally think of when discussing hybrid journalism models. The usual route is for a nonprofit of some kind to own a for-profit news organization. The example most often cited (including by Rosen) is the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a journalism research and training organization.

The difference matters, because a nonprofit news organization is prohibited from endorsing political candidates and engaging in other activities that might be deemed partisan. By contrast, a for-profit enjoys the full protection of the First Amendment, even if it’s owned by a nonprofit.

Not that a nonprofit can’t do great journalism — nonprofits ranging from Mother Jones to the New Haven Independent have proved that. But it will be interesting to see how First Look and its high-profile contributors, including Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, negotiate the tricky nonprofit landscape.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Keller and Greenwald on journalistic neutrality

Today’s New York Times debate between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald is terrific — better than I had expected. For me, the high point is how they make the case for fair, neutral journalism (Keller) and fair journalism with a clearly articulated point of view (Greenwald). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it better on either side.

Greenwald first:

A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).

Worse still, this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring. A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.

Now Keller:

I don’t think of it as reporters pretending they have no opinions. I think of it as reporters, as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself. And it matters that this is not just an individual exercise, but an institutional discipline, with editors who are tasked to challenge writers if they have given short shrift to contrary facts or arguments readers might want to know.

The thing is, once you have publicly declared your “subjective assumptions and political values,” it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint. And some readers, knowing that you write from the left or right, will view your reporting with justified suspicion.

I’m sympathetic to both points of view. But what I especially like about Keller’s is the idea that stating one’s opinions changes not just how the audience sees the journalist, but also how the journalist goes about his own work.

I’ve long argued that even an opinion journalist shouldn’t disclose her voting intentions. That’s because if it’s your job to take positions, it’s a lot harder to change those positions once you’ve joined someone’s team.

There’s a lot more where that came from, including much about Greenwald’s newly announced venture funded by eBay rich guy Pierre Omidyar — explained at some length by the redoubtable Jay Rosen.

A chilling act of intimidation and harassment

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

This is pretty shocking. On Sunday, David Miranda, the partner of lawyer/activist/journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at Heathrow Airport in London for nearly nine hours and questioned under Britain’s anti-terrorism laws. His computer and other electronics gear were confiscated. Greenwald, who writes for The Guardian, describes what happened here, writing:

This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic.

Greenwald, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras, has been the principal media conduit for Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs. Miranda had been visiting Poitras in Berlin and was on his way home to Rio de Janeiro. (If you haven’t read it yet, here is Peter Maass’ New York Times Magazine story on how Poitras, Snowden and Greenwald came together.)

What were the British security agents up to? Who knows? Maybe they genuinely believed Miranda might be carrying data they wanted to seize. Maybe they were trying to send a message to Greenwald and any other journalists about the consequences of working with a leaker such as Snowden.

Regardless of what you think of Snowden’s actions, there is an enormous difference between leaking and journalism. A generation ago, Daniel Ellsberg was put on trial for providing the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post; the Times and the Post weren’t prosecuted for publishing them.

The British enjoy fewer press rights than we do in the United States. But Britain is our closest ally, and the U.S. and British security services may be presumed to be working together on the Snowden matter.

The danger is that the U.S. is moving ever closer to criminalizing certain types of high-stakes, leak-based journalism. As I argued several months ago, there is nothing to stop the government from prosecuting journalists for publishing such information other than custom and the fear of a public backlash.

And consider what Snowden has accomplished. In just a few months, public awareness of and debate over government surveillance that came into place after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have finally reached critical mass. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls it “The Snowden Effect”:

Direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the U.S.

Given President Obama’s oft-proven contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society, we may be moving closer to the time that such constraints melt away.

Update: My outrage has not diminished, but my understanding of what happened has shifted. As this New York Times story makes clear, Miranda’s trip to Berlin was paid for by The Guardian. It appears that he was facilitating Greenwald’s and Poitras’ journalism, even if he’s not a journalist himself. So this was not harassment of a journalist’s family member. It was harassment of a journalist, or at least of someone engaged in journalistic activities.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Local journalism, civic life and “The Wired City”

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent's 10th-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010.

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010. Yes, that’s two-time U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon in the background.

This article appeared previously at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The star attraction was supposed to be Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of education reform. But the real stars were the audience members themselves.

I had driven to New Haven on this day in late November 2010 to see if Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, could pull off an audacious experiment in civic engagement. The Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization, is the principal subject of my new book, “The Wired City.” The subtitle — “Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” — reflects my belief that news can’t survive without public participation. What we got that night was full immersion.

Stage right, Ravitch sat with 11 other people — principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member and the like. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including Mayor John DeStefano, were live-blogging the event. The forum was webcast on television and radio, as well as on the websites of the Independent and the New Haven Register, the city’s daily newspaper. Viewers at home — and, for that matter, those in the auditorium who had laptops — were able to engage in a real-time, online conversation with the live-bloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published (here and here). The archived video was posted as well. Finally, in a touch that seemed almost old-fashioned, the 200 or so people who attended were invited to line up at two microphones during an extended question-and-answer period.

Among the myriad crises facing journalism, perhaps none is more vexing than civic illiteracy. Starting in the 1990s, leading thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll.

But if the audience doesn’t care about the public-interest aspects of journalism, then there really isn’t much hope for a revival. Over the years, newspaper publishers have responded to the decline of civic life by loading up on celebrity gossip and so-called news you can use, such as personal finance and cooking tips. It’s a losing game, because there are always going to be better sources of such information than the local newspaper.

More than a dozen years ago the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book “Bowling Alone,” found that people who were engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services or participating in any number of other activities — were also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Trouble is, Putnam’s machers and schmoozers were aging even then. And so it is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

C.W. Anderson, in his book “Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age,” writes that “journalists [report] the news in order to call a particular form of public into being.” Along similar lines, I argue in “The Wired City” that creating a public is at least as important as reporting on its behalf. No longer can it be taken for granted that there is a public ready to engage with news about last night’s city council meeting, a speech by the mayor or plans by a developer to tear down a neighborhood landmark and replace it with yet another convenience store.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site in western New York that I also write about in my book, once put it this way:

Local community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only “how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?”

In researching “The Wired City,” I learned that the readership for the New Haven Independent comprises a wide swath — elected officials, city employees (especially police officers and teachers), leaders and activists in the African-American community, dedicated localists and members of what struck me as a surprisingly large and politically aware group of bicycling advocates.

Though the Independent’s audience is not as large as that of the New Haven Register, its concentration inside the city limits and its popularity among opinion leaders — “the grassroots and grasstops circles,” as Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described it to me in an interview — gives the site outsize influence. Indeed, it was the Independent’s relentless coverage of a controversy over the video-recording of police actions by members of the public that led to a clarification from the police chief that such recording was legal. It also led to mandatory training for all officers.

Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia and in other places where news organizations are trying new methods of bridging the divide between journalism and the public is a revival of the ideas Jay Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago. “What we today call ‘engagement’ was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then,” Rosen told me in 2011. “It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.”

The “wired city” that I argue the New Haven Independent brought into being is a community built around local news, empowered by the “lighter and cheaper tools” that have become available during the past decade and a half. Through events like the Diane Ravitch forum, through carefully (if not perfectly) curated user comments and through the now-taken-for-granted convenience of always being just a few clicks away, the Independent has succeeded not so much as an entity unto itself but as the hub of a civic ecosystem.

As Clay Shirky has observed, with local newspapers slowly fading away, no single alternative will replace what they once provided. We need a variety of experiments — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership and voluntary efforts. The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Lessons learned: Covering the marathon bombings

Note: Northeastern journalism student Taylor Dobbs covered the Boston Marathon bombings and the final standoff in Watertown from the scene of both incidents, publishing stories and photos in Medium. Here he offers some advice to young journalists: Show up; be a witness; tell us what you know; don’t guess at what you don’t know.

Taylor DobbsBy Taylor Dobbs

In a fast-moving, violent situation, fear and confusion naturally prevail. Facts and hard truths are at a premium, and the most difficult thing to do is separate these disparate pieces and figure out what is happening.

As a journalist, I knew this was my job on the ground when I arrived at the edge of the police perimeter on Monday, April 15, minutes after a pair of bombs echoed through the crowded streets of Boston and then again when I headed to MIT after shooting was reported on the campus.

Show up

Even the hundreds of people standing in the median of Commonwealth Avenue had very little idea of what had just happened. Some were runners who’d been a mile away when the blasts went off.

It soon became clear that as confused as I was, I knew as much as anyone else about what had unfolded near the finish line. After that, I focused on scraping together whatever I could from what I could see.

There was little point in checking Twitter, because the majority of people I follow were farther from the action than I. Many are great journalists, but even the best journalist can only do so much good work from miles away. I had the one asset that trumps experience, employer and intelligence: I was there.

Again, in the case of Watertown, when I found out there had been a shooting at MIT I grabbed my phone and my laptop (to keep my phone’s battery alive) and hustled across the Charles River to MIT, where I connected with Twitter acquaintances Seth Mnookin and Brian D’Amico.

As a column of police cars sped away from that scene, Seth offered us a lift in his car on to the next place. As it turned out, we were the first three journalists in Watertown, arriving minutes after the shooting stopped. There was no interview, no poring over my résumé and writing samples (I certainly wasn’t one of the top three journalists to cover the week’s events, and wouldn’t have been chosen on my merits); I got to be there because I threw on my shoes and walked out the door.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen dives deeper on this concept in his aptly titled piece, “I’m There, You’re Not, Let Me Tell You About It: A Brief Essay on the Origins of Authority in Journalism.”

You can’t know what you can’t see …

Before the questions of who, why and how emerged, there were simpler ones: Was anyone hurt? What caused the explosions? Are there going to be more? Was my loved one in there?

Without being able to see the scene or the horrible images coming from the marathon finish line, I used the information available to try to answer some of these. I kept count of the ambulances coming to the scene. When I counted the fifth one driving through the police barrier, it seemed clear that there were people hurt, but there was no way for me to be sure.

I would later find out there were three dead and more than 200 injured. But tweeting something like “5 ambulances going to the scene, people are definitely injured” would not only stir panic among the people who were tracking my tweets for updates, it would also be over-stretching my knowledge.

No one was asking me how many ambulances were there, they were asking if anyone was hurt. I couldn’t possibly answer them, so I gave what information I could. I got a message from Colin Schultz, a fellow journalist based in Canada who was following the action, that summarized this sentiment well: “Good luck. Keep calm. Stick to what you know.”

… and that’s OK

As I stood on Nichols Street in Watertown, pressed up against the police tape trying to figure out what was happening, questions started pouring in on my Twitter feed. People wanted to know if I could confirm reports they were hearing: Was a suspect dead? Were both suspects in custody? Was there a third suspect? Was this related to the MIT shooting? To the marathon bombing?

Naturally, people wanted answers. The job of a journalist is to get the facts and report them — to give hard and fast answers to questions of public interest. Certainly, all of those questions were good ones that were very much of public interest. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the answer to any of them. As we saw from the New York Post, CNN and others last week, giving answers before confirming them not only leads to wrong answers — it’s reckless and irresponsible journalism.

The worst thing a journalist can do is provide answers he doesn’t have. Not only does it make him look bad (see @JohnKingCNN’s incoming replies), but it diminishes the signal-to-noise ratio coming from the scene. People tend to trust journalists who are on the scene (besides authorities, who have the best and most accurate information) during a breaking news event. So journalists on the scene providing false information is especially harmful, however well-intentioned it is.

Look and listen

Standing in Watertown as police searched the neighborhood for suspects, it was easy to take the sensory inputs for granted. I wasn’t hearing gunshots, police were yelling, it was very dark, officers with body armor and assault rifles were walking hurriedly through the streets, more police cars were showing up.

All of these things seemed perfectly reasonable for the area around a gunfight in which suspects were still at large. While it was a surreal scene, it didn’t seem an unnatural police response. It was easy to forget, however, that people who weren’t on the scene didn’t know any of those things.

It seemed stupidly obvious, but I tweeted that I hadn’t heard any gunshots since I arrived and that police were still arriving. When they began to leave, I tweeted that, too. No detail is too small, because each one you provide is that much more information that followers who aren’t there wouldn’t otherwise have.

Taylor Dobbs is a senior journalism major at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter at @taylordobbs. Photo by Maggie Kinzel.