Even before last Thursday’s dramatic manhunt across Watertown, Massachusetts, a debate was already brewing over who provided the best news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and its subsequent investigation. The major contenders were not just news organizations, but also independent voices across social media platforms. Many argued early on that social media was beating the news organizations at their own game, and snafus like the false reports put out by the New York Post and CNN didn’t help matters.
By the end of the week, though, circumstances were different. Reddit and Twitter had helped promote significant misinformation. Crowd-sourced sleuthing efforts turned up a number of suspects, but not the Tsarnaev brothers. The public conversation shifted from the question of who covered the story better, to a debate over who failed most.
In a sense, the correct answer is: neither. Failure implies a missed goal, but what were the goals here? Social media platform like Twitter or Reddit are built to disseminate personal broadcasts or aggregate attention. In that regard, both performed admirably. The platforms themselves are agnostic when it comes to truth, so we should hardly be surprised that they deal just as effectively with misinformation as they do with verified fact.
More broadly, though, the tech start-up culture that created both is fixated with “disruption,” a favorite buzzword among digital trainspotters. There are tech enthusiasts who seem to value nothing more than those innovations that derail established financial models by introducing new ways to do things—or, better yet, new things to do. It has become a veritable end unto itself.
That’s precisely the role social media platforms played, disrupting our established ways of covering and consuming breaking news. They even tried to disrupt established methods of investigating crimes, though to less success. The problem wasn’t that they failed, but rather the discovery that the results were often deeply unsatisfying.
At the same time, it is the nature of genuine disruptions to shift the goalposts for established models. Social platforms like Reddit and Twitter were aimed at disrupting traditional media outlets, so it’s only natural that the major news organizations would recalibrate their own goals. The new goal is to keep up with the pace and cadence set by social media, making use of social platforms whenever possible.
Many news organizations did just that: they broadcasted breaking events faster than they could verify them and treated speculation as worthy of dissemination. The most spectacular failures of the news media were inseparable from those successes. That we see them as failures at all is a result of our having reverted to an old standard, one that values accuracy and utility over speed and reach.
Really, then, the failure is ours. It’s a cultural failure to recognize that successfully disrupting a market or model means altering the goals that once prevailed. Sometimes, those goals are worth keeping. The challenge is finding a way to preserve them in an informational market that may have been irrevocably disrupted.