by Eric Paolini
"Part of fear is when dealing with the unknown, if you perceive that unknown as scary. A scary movie is no longer as scary when you know how it was filmed."
Late last Thursday night, and into the next morning, can only be described as surreal. Following the events from Watertown, Massachusetts live was an unparalleled experience. This was due to the combination of fear and unknown and watching how different media organizations and platforms were handling the situation.
My entry into the Boston saga was through Twitter on Monday as pandemonium was being reported from the Boston Marathon. The collective panic, fear, and sadness was bizarrely riveting. The bombings at the finish line were incomprehensible at the time, and to a certain extent, they still are. During this time of unknown, Twitter was a great resource at providing information that had a bit of a calming effect.
The collective worry seemed to be higher given that deaths were in the single digits. I don't mean to trivialize the deaths of innocent victims by any means. The death of an innocent person is terrible, especially when it was intentional. But my point is, the tragicness seemed to be on a level with dozens of deaths.
I find information to be calming. Part of fear is when dealing with the unknown, if you perceive that unknown as scary. Information uncovers the unknown. A scary movie is no longer as scary when you know how it was filmed.
By the time Thursday came, a little more knowledge was available about the marathon bombing. We knew what the two suspects looked like. Be that as it may, the bombing was surrounded with mystery. A mystery that hasn't really left the case because then even crazier reports were coming from Watertown, Massachusetts.
Just like the Monday's events, I learned of Thursday night's chaos through Twitter. Trying to piece together what happened was almost impossible. The available information was sporadic and didn't piece together for a comprehensible picture. All that was known was a 7-11 had been robbed, a security officer at MIT was killed, and a shootout was occurring in Watertown, Massachusetts where bombs were involved.
Much like Monday afternoon during the marathon, the Internet was full of fear and panic. The connection between the Watertown shootout and the marathon bombings were easy to make. They were either connected or Boston, and its surrounding area, had terrible luck. At first it was just speculation, but eventually it became verified, they were connected. Throughout the entire night, whether on Twitter or on television, seemed to happen with an understanding the two events were connected. In the state of unawareness and panic Twitter proved to be helpful, even if it possibly upped the panic.
And this is where I question whether Twitter did just as much harm as good. In Watertown, CNN was terrified of claiming anything after they misreported the arrest of a "dark skinned" suspect the day previous. It wasn't just the reporters not saying anything. Whoever operated the bottom line was continually running "CNN Reporter: 'A very large event has taken place in Watertown'".
When CNN was spending airtime talking about how they couldn't talk about anything in particular, Twitter was rampant with actual information as well as wild speculation. There was a fairly clear divide between reliable information and speculation and who was responsible for each. Through Twitter Boston-based writer Seth Mnookin was reporting from the Watertown scene. His information was trusted throughout the night because he was giving important information while not speculating. The Boston Globe Twitter account, and whatever reporters responsible for their information, were providing reliable information throughout the night as well. Having a known reliable source to turn to, specifically the Globe, provided much comfort.
Even with getting information out quickly, the emphasis was still on accuracy. At one point Mnookin tweeted "This is classic I'd rather be late and right scenario. It doesn't matter who's first by five minutes; it does matter if bad info given out."
Twitter has always had a reputation for unreliable information because of the ability of anybody and everybody having access to Twitter. During the crisis, when competition between different news organizations is less important, there seemed to be a stronger emphasis on reliable information vs. quick information. Throughout the night I never heard someone say, "you heard it here first."
But to think Twitter was infallible that night is a mistake. Throughout the night the suspects were thought to be named Sunil Tripathi and Mike Mulugeta. At one point information from Reddit was making the rounds on Twitter about Tripathi being a missing student from Brown University. The woman who apparently supplied this information to Twitter (apologies, I do not know her name) was tweeting she was being requested for interviews by various news organizations. However, Tripathi and Mulugeta were not responsible for either the marathon bombings or the events in Cambridge and Watertown. Their names were pulled from the Boston police scanner and put out on Twitter. The next morning the suspects names were correctly changed to Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev.
The availability and use of the police scanner seems to be simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing. For one, it provided a look into the behind the scenes happenings of the police force. It provided snippets of information straight from police with them being able to do their job simultaneously. But there was the potential to take those snippets out of context, possibly the reason behind the incorrect suspect names.
I do not know whether it's better for the public to have access to scanners and tweet out the information. It provided a comfort in knowledge no matter how incomplete. Every piece of information provides more awareness which usually takes away some of that fear. The key is whether or not that information is reliable.
Throughout that Thursday night and very early Friday morning (Pacific time I should add) there was a swagger Twitter users had. Because Twitter is a shared experience of its users, there seemed to be a mentality taken of shared success by everyone. Yes, Twitter had much of the information first over the television stations. But that is not due to every Twitter account holder. The Sacramento Bee's Marcos Breton makes a key point when he tweeted, "Lots of confused people think Twitter is reporting the news. Reporters are breaking news. Twitter is the medium, journos the source. #Boston."
The battle wasn't between old school media vs. new school media. Reporters on television were much less successful than reporters on Twitter. Why was there a difference? I do not know. I think CNN's poor performance on the air Thursday night/Friday morning was due to their gun shy approach after making a huge gaffe earlier in the week. Why the other news stations played a minor role as well I honestly do not know. If you would allow me to speculate, I think it's the same reasons newspapers have struggled in the digital age. Possibly CNN was not aware of the power of social media and its potential for reliable reporting like newspapers thought the Internet would be a fad that eventually would pass. In the scrambling to get reporters on the air to fill that time was too much energy to also have people get information. This may be why in the scramble CNN frequently turned to a CNN photographer and had him recount what he saw, which provided little information.
If the television networks willfully ignored, or at least deemphasized social media, than they will continually be at a loss. Not only can it be a valuable tool, it is better suited for journalists to push accurate information when it is most needed. That is not to say that the general public doesn't have a role at all. At times through the investigation the public was relied upon like when the suspects pictures were released. But there is a point when it can be cluttered.
Not only will the events that occurred at the Boston Marathon and in surrounding cities be remembered for the tragedy and violence but for the way people experienced the tragedies. Never before have I been so aware of how collective we are as a society. Relying on strangers information, and being so incredibly appreciative, to understand the events that were occurring on the other side of the country. While traditional news media can give you that information, it isn't as it is occurring. What they have to contribute is different, not necessarily worse. Social media was able to capture the collective emotions as everythi
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