It was late, I was tired, but I couldn’t pull away from Twitter and what was going on around Boston.
Gunfire. Explosions. A massive police presence. Was this connected to the bombings at the Boston Marathon that Monday? It was looking like it. I’d searched the hashtag #watertown and was hitting refresh, over and over. Then, out of nowhere, people started tweeting that the suspects had been named, and that one of them was the missing college student people had been speculating about all night on Reddit.
I searched and searched but found nothing particularly credible to support the claim. Was this a grassroots scoop or a good story gone wrong? A tweet from an influential user I knew stood out. He said the ID of the suspect had been “confirmed.” Where? I tweeted at him. How? He replied that a lot of other people had posted it. Oh, I thought, and understood. What I call repetition he called confirmation.
You know the rest of it. The rumor swelled ‘til it popped with the truth. The suspects were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, not this poor missing kid (whose body was coincidentally found April 23 in Providence, R.I.).
It was one of several head-scratching episodes from a night when media changed. A direct message that same Twitter user sent me later summed up one big challenge.
“I’m not a journalist, I don’t have journalistic credentials, but I have an audience,” he wrote. “Lesson learned.”
Professional journalists have a lot of questions to answer in the wake of that runaway Boston manhunt story — easily one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the shifting media landscape we’ve seen yet. But members of the public had their own reckoning that night — a wake-up call to their immense informative power and the good and bad it can do.
Asking how to stop or contain them is the wrong question.
The right question is, how do we help?
It’s easier for journalists to pay lip service to the idea of collaborating with the public than it is to actually do it. There are good reasons it’s tough: Control. Values. Trust. But public voices are here, speaking alongside ours, and for the good of the information we share, at least, we’ve got to see past the barriers between us. That begins with understanding what drives public voices, and seeing how it’s not so different from what drives our own.
One thing is critical to accept. The capacity to inform is the same for the public as it is for journalists — potentially. Not every member of the public has that capacity all the time, like a working journalist might, but any member of the public could get it at any time, if she’s a witness, if she’s moved to gather knowledge others want, or if she’s the center of the news herself.
To that capacity we add instinct. Two things happened that late Thursday night that moved so many to say so much about a thoroughly important story.
The first was a hunger for the most current information. That may sound obvious, but think about how far it went. For the first time ever, a mass national audience took as its source one city’s police scanner.
Why glom onto something so raw and potentially misleading? Because it was the most current information. If someone had figured out a way to stream what was going on in Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis’ brain, they would’ve tuned in to that instead.
And heck, so would journalists.
We have the same dangerously speculative conversations leaned over scanners in our newsrooms as the public was having out in the open. The difference is the product. We’re gathering material to write a story. Their conversation is their story.
Which leads to the second driver of the night: a need to talk. Journalists get together when something crazy is happening. So do people. Boston was a kind of crazy we hadn’t seen in a while, and there was no mistaking the interest; people stayed up all night.
Let me say that again: People stayed up all night. That really says something. We’re at home at night, alone with our significant others, roommates, families or just ourselves and our private lives. I can watch the season finale of “Girls” by myself but there was no way I was going to live the rush of emotion around Boston in isolation. My husband went to bed, so I went to Twitter. Problem solved.
Of course, this wasn’t a TV show. It was real life, with real people and real consequences. Who’s a journalist? Here’s a better question: Who holds responsibility for the information they share?
I knew my Twitter contact who tweeted that rumor wasn’t a professional journalist. That’s not why he mentioned it. He said he wasn’t a journalist as an excuse, as a way to shed responsibility for bad information he shared with a lot of people. But it didn’t work, and he knew it. Because here’s the thing: When we all share the capacity to inform, we all share the responsibility, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Which brings us to the misunderstood rebel in all of this, Reddit. Two things annoy me when people say that “Reddit got it wrong” or “Reddit failed.” First, Reddit is not one monolithic thing. Reddit is a space online where conversations happen. Better yet, it’s multiple such spaces. Blaming the platform for the actions of its users won’t get us any closer to a world where public voices take responsibility for what they say.
Second, Reddit deserves credit. If you’re a journalist and you’ve judged it without checking it out, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Reddit is the best place to turn information into actionable information.
I’ve always thought journalism was at its best when it provided actionable information. Well, Reddit figured out a simple recipe that works a surprising amount of the time and is accessible to anyone: Set your topic. Add rules. Add moderators. Add members. Bake. There’s a sub-Reddit where people down on their luck ask for a pizza and people who want to help call up a local pie shop and order them one. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen online.
A sub-Reddit named “find boston bombers” cropped up after the Boston Marathon bombing. Its community pored over public images from the finish line in an attempt to find the sickos who did it. It creeped people out, bit off more than non-experts could chew and resulted in damaging misinformation. But it did come from one good place — a place where the response to the news that someone bombed the Boston Marathon isn’t, “Oh, I hope they find them,” but, “OK, what can we do?”
What’s missing from Reddit is individual accountability. It doesn’t come with the package. There is a kind of group accountability — the “find boston bombers” moderator apologized after things went so wrong — but no one knows who he is. (Reddit General Manager Erik Martin apologized, too.) People use anonymous handles and freely delete posts they don’t like later. Things move and shake on Reddit that then move and shake in the real world. But the connection is unclear.
That’s why, when I got the chance to ask one question to Erik Martin on a recent chat hosted by the Poynter Institute, it was this: “How do we know Redditors are learning?”
I had something in mind from my early career when I asked that question. I thought of me as a brand new journalist at The Houston Chronicle, close to tears in a meeting with my advisor in the program that got me there ahead of my time. I’d been a top student in high school and college. Success had been a matter of how hard I studied, and I could always study hard enough.
Not here. Every day on the cops beat was a struggle to survive and a prayer that nothing big would happen. Time and again, it did. And I’d mess up. I’d stumble. The PIOs, I knew, laughed at me, the clueless 22-year-old reporter. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Why couldn’t I study my way out of this?
My advisor smiled, and with all the wisdom I didn’t yet have, gave me my answer: Because you only learn journalism by doing it.
Are they learning, all those public voices who took Boston scanner chatter as fact, passed on dangerous rumors or made gross assumptions about things they couldn’t know? Are they learning, everyone who fell prey to those temptations professional journalists know too well — emotion, drama, pride and that deep, wild rush to be first?
Public voices are doing journalism, so they can learn journalism — even in the chaotic online space.
What can we do to help?
Welcome them, model good behavior and encourage it when you see it. See everyone as fellow journalists, even if they don’t. It holds them to a higher standard, and there’s no harm in that.
Understand and respect the breadth of platforms where people speak and the voices they speak with. Join them when you can.
Most importantly, cultivate a culture of responsibility with everyone who shares information. That’s the lesson of the Boston manhunt. It’s what this new media world most needs today.
Mónica Guzmán is a journalist and tech columnist for The Seattle Times and GeekWire. She previously worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and completed an 18-month Hearst Fellowship. Reach her by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @moniguzman