Noah J Nelson on Friday, Apr. 19th
The actual news out of Boston is still unfolding, yet it might be good to take a moment to come up for air and survey the media landscape. To ask just what this titanic storm of information is doing to our perception of reality.
Right now the mainstream media coverage of the manhunt in Boston–especially CNN–feels like amateur hour. (CNN’s coverage in particular seems to have kept getting worse as the story unfolds.) Constant repetition of “facts” and speculation coupled with the most inane questions (“How does a seemingly normal person become a monster?”) shows just how much we are, as a society, suffering from what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock”.
Our expectations of what the press can do in a situation like this is running up against the unquenchable thirst for new information that the 24-hour news cycle has engendered into our culture. That, in turn has become the 60-second news cycle of social media.
Much noise has been made of how badly CNN has been botching the story. At one point, anchor John King stood on screen, reading text messages from his cellphone. In an earlier era a reporter wouldn’t have done this kind of thing in front of a national TV audience. They would have read the texts to their editor, checked it against other sources, and then put it on air. That luxury is gone in the age of Twitter. CNN is in active competition with social media for control of the news narrative.
It is a fight the network cannot win.
Last night, as the standoff in Watertown began, the outcry on Twitter was “where is CNN”? News was breaking thanks to our peer-to-peer information sharing, and the lack of an “official” narrative as supplied by “the most trusted name in news” was a palpable hole. This is in part because while we know instinctively that we can trust each other, we don’t necessarily know that we can trust the third hand information passed on by some guy’s cousin who we might have heard of because of a funny post about Rush that one time.
We’re left with a paralyzing paradox: we want the old guardian of our national narrative to tell us what is really going on, but we want it at the same speed as the whisper-mill. We are collectively confronting the fact that when it comes to news we are now very much on our own.
So we begin looking for more information, hoping that data will become wisdom. Someone digs up Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s twitter account. Everyone starts to tune into police scanner feeds, or at least their Twitter repeaters, until that turns out to be a bad idea. Reddit users decide to lead the investigation and manage to both succeed and fail spectacularly. Update: And then there’s horrible stuff like this, where everyone gets it hideously wrong.
Instead of an editorial board crafting the narrative we are crowdsourcing the consensus. This is what we said we wanted when we built the Internet, and it sure feels like 8 tons of crazy in a three pound bag.
So remember a few things to keep you sane the next time something like this happens:
* Look for two independent sources before passing on information.
* Parse the emotional rhetoric straight out–it’s a red flag for garbled information.
* The cable news people are just as confused as you are, only their jobs are on the line so they’re more likely to choke.
* Posting or sharing links to posts of the personal information of possible suspects is supremely stupid.
There’s only so much anyone can do when they are hundreds or thousands of miles away from the scene of a tragedy and sitting in front of a computer screen. The best you can do is to help everyone stay sane.
If you need some of that, I’ll be over at Tumblr, posting cat videos.
[Editor’s note: updated at 12:29PDT with a few minor copy changes for style.]