One of the first examples of crowdsourced current events was on the Wikimedia sites in 2005. On July 7th that year a series of bombs went off in London, killing over fifty people. Starting with those that lived within earshot of the explosions, users attempted to create a Wikinews report, and then once it became clear that these were deliberate attacks, a Wikipedia article. Since these sites list all edits made to a page, you could see the evolution of knowledge. The initial edit is by a user with very little to go on. Two hours later the page has pictures, sources, and the beginnings of a timeline. Two hours after that, there are sections and a statement by the Prime Minister indicating a possible terrorist attack.
What this first example showed me was that the process of assembling a coherent (and factually accurate) narrative is ugly. You start with very little, and without fact-checking and additional, independent reports everything is by nature speculative. However, given some determination it is possible to put things together in an impressive bit of time. But the beginning is ugly and you’re going to be wrong quite a bit.
The shooting at the D.C Navy shipyard brings to the surface an inconvenient truth about major media outlets- especially TV news channels. John King’s on-air blunder in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings is only the most prominent recent case of this kind of grasping, speculative form of infotainment. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, among others, have ditched many of the cornerstones of journalism. It’s so egregious in the case of rapidly-changing current events that the question arises: is this even journalism anymore? And if it is not, what is it?
A couple key developments that strain credibility. First, the time-honored tradition of multiple independent sources, where two or more separate accounts of an event are required prior to reporting, is largely ignored. One sources often suffices, or the anchors simply interpret what is happening based on live camera footage. Instead of several people on the ground with local knowledge and different perspectives to the event, there are a couple news figures whose main job is to increase dramatic tension.
With the rise of social media juggernauts, verifiable sources are often replaced with the speculation and reports of the public at large. While this does have some use- it can give a more raw, immediate idea of what is happening. But a Twitter account that, for instance, states that they are within blocks of the shooting/flood/police raid cannot be quickly verified. Ultimately to accept the truth of a tweet posted three minutes ago, you have to accept the location, accuracy, and competence of the poster by faith.
Watching CNN deal with the Boston bombing and the ensuing manhunt gives the clear impression that there is no method or due diligence in their programming. On July 7th, 2005 information about what happened trickled in over hours for the more easily verifiable material, and days or weeks for things such as who conducted the bombing and why they did it. What 24-hour news channels have a habit of doing is filling in this gap with metaphorical sawdust. An important event does not always have news associated with it. Sometimes all that is known has been reported, and there is a gap until existing information is modified (say, a causality count) or new information appears (an apparent extra gunman, for instance).
So what is CNN and its ilk? In some cases it’s theater. Anchors hype up storylines that may or may not exist, and ascribe importance and meaning to events that are not clearly connected. During the election season CNN sported not one, but two tables of analysts. They each had a role to play- the intellectual, the smartass, the aww-shucks Cajun. One could also be less charitable still and call it bullshit. An hour of cable news can feel like a high school junior trying to write an eight page essay on a book they did not read. The crafting of artificial narratives (ascribing motive ten minutes after a crime is reported) also makes it feel like a séance. Instead of hard sources, why not pretend to be a mind-reader?
This is for the most part beating a dead horse. It is widely accepted that cable news is drivel. The takeover of MSNBC and Fox News by ideologues in place of standard news programming garners a lot of attention, but it overlooks how in the modern environment of social media and creating dramatic tension to increase ratings the regular news programming itself is less impartial and more speculative that one might think.
When we look at lessons from the slow death in print journalism, we should change the medium rather than the process. Journalism in the Internet age still exists (look at ProPublica, or the Center for Investigative Reporting) but discarding what made journalism so vital in the 20th century is dangerous. When it’s a rag-tag group of Wikinews volunteers, some sloppy reporting is excusable. When a large media outlet with researchers and an established set of standards do the same thing, it questions what they do with all those resources.