Riveted to our screens, we learned last week of the enormous value of social media and surveillance video when tragedy strikes. But — and this second point is as significant as the first — we were also reminded of the importance of established, well-funded, conventional media, without which the big picture would have had gaping holes.
What the Boston Marathon story confirmed was that new media and old serve us best when they complement each other.
Modern digital technology was certainly on full display. From the stunningly clear images of the bombing suspects that authorities were able to extract from commercial surveillance and personal devices, to the Google views from street and satellite that depicted the boat in the driveway where the ordeal ended, viewers had to marvel. Aided by millions worldwide using Twitter and other social media, information was widely circulated, helping authorities and informing the public.
For five straight days, however, it was what is often derisively called “mainstream media” that kept us best informed, as viewership of the major broadcast TV networks and national cable news channels soared. This conventional reporting would have been weaker without input from social media; yet, without mainstream media, meaningful coverage would have been impossible.
A great deal of what circulated on “feeds” via social media was simply a summary of events being reported by conventional media. When a well-known journalist tweeted at the height of the drama, “Best coverage on ABC,” he was underscoring the importance of network reporting.
Networks, in turn, were aided by local affiliates in the Boston and Providence markets, as well as by regional cable outlets such as New England Cable News. Such coverage is expensive, and it’s the “mass” part of mass media that pays the bill. Without a huge audience and resulting revenue, the process would collapse.
This television superstructure, recently threatened by development of digital services that bypass broadcast and cable delivery, is essential for news. As conventional distribution becomes outdated for entertainment programming, our information flow is increasingly at risk.
The same is true of major metro newspapers, which, despite cutbacks, are still able to summon vast resources — including boots on the ground, as we enjoy saying nowadays — to cover a complex breaking story. The most detailed reporting came from legacy newspapers: The Boston Globe and New York Times.
Those who argue that this structure can be replaced by bloggers, aggregators and millions of device-equipped citizen journalists are seriously mistaken.
Equally important is the editing and checking process. While a few electronic journalists, notably CNN’s John King, and established print outlets including The New York Post, made serious mistakes in the rush to identify the bombing suspects, the worst such errors were those hatched by social media. Chad Hurley, the co-founder of YouTube, went so far as to post a link to someone whom social media had concluded was a bombing suspect, but who was not.
Mistakes happen during high-pressure coverage. Some blame this on the 24/7 nature of modern media but it’s really not a new phenomenon in news, nor is it a valid excuse. What matters is that news organizations have the necessary layers of editorial and other staff to check facts and put information in proper context. Again, it’s often a matter of money.
In enthusing over the triumph of personal and social media in Boston, there is temptation to argue that this might supplant conventional news coverage.
Police proved that the combination of mainstream methodology and new technology yielded the best possible outcome. So, too, was it demonstrated that the public remains best served by reporters with boots on the ground, even when supplemented by new cameras in the sky.
Peter Funt can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. His new book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” will be published in May.