It's Not About Whether Amateur Internet Journalism Is Good Or Bad, But That It Happens And Will Continue To Happen
from the look-forward,-not-back dept
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing among the types of people who hand-wring about these things, that there was a flurry of activity on Reddit and Twitter late last night / early this morning believing that one of the suspects in the Boston Bombings was Sunil Tripathi, a Brown student who went missing last month (and, for what it’s worth, when people thought it was him, folks from 4Chan started complaining that they had done the real sleuthing, and were pissed off that Reddit got the credit — but, now that it turned out to be wrong, 4Chan seems happy to let Reddit take the heat). Alexis Madrigal has the basics of the story, which has allowed the usual crew of folks who hate the concept of “citizen journalism” or whatever it’s called today to whine about how awful “Reddit” journalism is. Defender of legacy newspapers, Ryan Chittum, seemed particularly gleeful in calling out that Reddit “fails again,” and saying that the mainstream media did it right.
Except, that’s ridiculous. Mathew Ingram points out that people attacking Reddit for this are missing the point, which is true by a wide, wide margin. First of all, as he notes, mainstream news folks also got parts of the story wrong. As we noted yesterday, the mainstream TV folks got a hell of a lot wrong. Hell, the NY Post even put the wrong two guys on the cover and falsely claimed that the feds were seeking them.
But the bigger problem is this idea that it’s “Reddit” or, as some people have argued) “the internet” against the legacy media. That’s not true at all. Everyone made mistakes during the rapidly changing story, but only on Reddit did you actually see the details of the process. The legacy news organizations present things as if coming from a place of authority, while Reddit is like an open newsroom where anyone can jump in. The conversation about Tripathi, for example, was about whether or not Suspect #2 was him — it wasn’t based on a declaration that it absolutely was him. Furthermore, when you look at the reason why the story actually spread, it was after some more known “press” names retweeted the initial tweet from Greg Hughes, which claimed (incorrectly) that Tripathi’s name went out on the police scanner (ironically, he posted that about a minute after posting “This is the Internet’s test of ‘be right, not first’ with the reporting of this story”).
But here’s the real issue: people can fret about all of this, but it doesn’t change one thing: this is going to happen and continue to happen. People are naturally curious and they’re going to talk to people when there’s a news story going on and they’ll try to figure things out. That happens all the time in newsrooms already before stuff goes on the air or is officially published. It’s just that the public doesn’t see the process. On Reddit, or anywhere else that the public can converse, it does happen in public. The problem is to assume the two things are the same. Furthermore, it’s even more insane to blame “Reddit” or “the internet” as if those are singular entities that anyone has control over. They’re not. As Karl Bode noted, they’re just massive crowds of people.
An even better point was made by Charles Luzar, who noted that “the crowd doesn’t implicitly profess its empirical correctness like the media does,” but rather admits quite openly that it’s a process in action. Further, he notes that even if the crowd presents false information before finding factual information, that’s still “effective crowdsourcing” and, if anything, provides a greater role to the media to be effective curators of the actual facts.
In the end, it seems likely that this incident will actually help a lot the next time there’s a big breaking news story, because (hopefully) it will give people more reason to be at least somewhat skeptical of stories coming out, but it’s not going to change the fact that groups on various platforms are going to talk about things, and often try to do a little sleuthing themselves. Sometimes they’ll get it right, and sometimes they won’t — just the same as many others. It seems like a much better focus looking forward is in providing more training and tools to help the world be better at it.