Breaking news, social media and verification

Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of Boston.com
Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of Boston.com

Last Saturday I had the privilege of moderating a panel on “Covering Chaos,” a look at how nontraditional journalism and social media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings and the aftermath.

Panelists were three people who covered the events as they were unfolding, Andrew Ba Tran of Boston.com and Northeastern University students Taylor Dobbs and Brian D’Amico; Boston.com producer Catherine Cloutier; and Josh Stearns of Free Press, an expert on social media and verification.

It was a terrific event. Everyone, including me, learned a lot about best practices in reporting from the scene, in aggregation and curation, and in verifying the accuracy of on-the-ground reports in real time.

Cambridge Community Television, which organized the event, has posted a Storify by Cambridge media activist Saul Tannenbaum on our panel and the three that preceded it, which dealt with alternative online media in Cambridge, legal issues and new forms of digital storytelling.

In addition, Stearns, the hardest-working man in media reform, has published his keynote address as well as a blog post on misinformation and verification following the marathon bombings.

Photo (cc) by Christian Herold and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Panel to discuss citizen media and the marathon

This Saturday, May 4, I’ll be moderating a panel at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library on how nontraditional journalism and citizen media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings. Titled “Covering Chaos,” the panel will be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and will include:

  • Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director for the media-reform organization Free Press and an expert on verification and trust with regard to citizen media.
  • Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student at Northeastern University whose coverage at the finish line and again in Watertown was featured on the website Medium. Dobbs wrote about what he learned in a recent guest post for Media Nation.
  • Catherine Cloutier, a producer for Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s free website, which was a crucial source of information in the aftermath of the bombings. Cloutier was among those posting to the site’s live blog.

The panel will close an event being sponsored by Cambridge Community Television and other organizations called “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media.” It begins at 9 a.m. and looks like it should be well worth your time. More information here.

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.

Friends of Media Nation reflect on the tragedy

I’ve seen a lot of worthwhile, heartfelt commentary written by friends and colleagues in the last day and a half. I’ve retweeted some, “liked” others, but I thought I should try to pull some of them together here. The following is a highly idiosyncratic list; the only unifying principle is that I am friendly with the writers. I’m probably forgetting a few, but I can always post more later. Click on the names to read their essays in full.

Amy Derjue: “As I’m about to get on the train or back in the car after visiting my Mom, she says she puts me in a bubble when I leave. In the bubble, nothing bad can happen to me when I’m out of her sight. It’s how she can deal with me riding the subway to work, living in a city, driving a car. We all put ourselves and our loved ones in these bubbles every day. Boston’s bubble doesn’t feel very strong right now. But we’ll be OK. We’ll keep going about our business and doing what we love because a life lived in all-encompassing fear isn’t life.”

Taylor Dobbs: “The bombs sounded like fireworks. The screams sounded like the cheers that had poured through my open window for hours. It wasn’t until I saw ‘explosion at the finish line’ on Twitter that I took out my camera bag, snapped on my zoom lens and ran out the door, shoes untied and sockless.”

Azita Ghahramani: “Finally, safely at home, I made the mistake of turning on the news to hear updates on what had happened. When someone reported that the first casualty was an 8-year-old-boy, I heard my son gasp. A child, not much younger than him, hadn’t been spared the nightmare my son thought he had narrowly escaped. That gasp is the other moment I’ll never forget.”

William Bradford: “I have lived in Boston for almost four years now and this was the first time I had decided to be a spectator of the marathon, and to partake in the revelry of Patriots Day. In truth, I did not really want to go downtown. When you stand butt-high to the average citizen, crowds tend to be an annoyance. But there were two of my people running in the race and I wanted to greet them at the finish line. It was to be a monumental day: the first time in race history that two people with dwarfism would not only be qualified to run the race, but also finish it. Or so I hoped. I am the Senior Vice President of Little People of America, the nation’s largest support and advocacy group for people with dwarfism, and it was a proud moment for our organization. I felt a duty to be there in solidarity. As it turned out, it was the solidarity of strangers, Good Samaritans, that bore me through a time of crisis.”

Josh Stearns: “I have no doubt that my sons will have to confront violence in our media and our world, but I see no benefit to introducing it at such a young age. Children under the age of six witness media coverage of disasters as live events, happening before their eyes (ears) and so to children, the ongoing repeated coverage feels as though the disaster is in fact happening over and over again. At a time when the news stories can shift from budget debates and bombings, the news is full of emotional landmines.”

Charles P. Pierce: “Ultimately, many of the lost and the confused and the separated found themselves and their loved ones at the Boylston Street end of the Public Garden. There was a general milling about and, for a moment, it almost seemed as though the spirit of the day had been recaptured, until you realized that a lot of this joy was about finding out your wife or your son wasn’t maimed, and until you saw the people sitting alone, their backs against the trees, staring up through the branches as if they were hanging prayers on every one of them.”

Lloyd Schwartz (added Wednesday): “More people have lost their lives at stampedes at other sporting events in other parts of the world. But I’m heartbroken about the eight-year-old boy killed returning to the stands after running into the street to greet his father who was crossing the finish line. For the new amputees, some of them runners. For the dancer who sustained critical leg injuries. For Boston. It’s heartbreaking.”

Steve Krause (added Wednesday): “I’ve heard a lot in the past two days about how tough Bostonians are … and how resilient. I don’t know if we’re any tougher, or any more resilient, than anyone else whose city has been torn apart by a terror attack. The dichotomy of all this is that the most depraved acts we can think of often result, in their aftermath, in some of the most astounding examples of human kindness and nobility of spirit. I’d like to bottle it up if I could and let some of it out down the road when the shock wears off and people return to acting the way they normally do.”

Michael Jonas (added Wednesday): “Yesterday, as was true a dozen years ago, the security drill struck me as a fairly desperate effort to bring at least a thin veneer of order and security to a world with risks we simply are not able to eliminate. But once the office buildings are secured, what about the shopping malls? Downtown Crossing at midday? My Red Line ride home? Or anyplace, for that matter, where a dozen people might congregate close together, an inviting ‘soft target’ for someone bent on the mayhem that transformed the scene at the Boston Marathon finish line in an instant from a celebration of human perseverance to a sidewalk killing field.”