The incidents in and around Boston early Friday morning were a turning point in news coverage. A turn for better and worse.
At 4 a.m. that day, I was still awake, still tracking unfolding historic events, repeatedly refreshing my social media to find the latest information.
The country was on edge as the FBI had just released photos hours earlier of two men suspected of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings days before. The federal government was looking for the public’s help in finding the two men, but in the end the public may have actually helped keep one of the men out of police custody, at least temporarily.
It happened in a flash, and yet not.
It was almost 1 a.m. Friday and my phone received an email from a friend saying something big was happening in Boston. I switched my television over to CNN and there was nothing except an infomercial hawking wares.
The shooting of a police officer at MIT had been reported earlier that evening, but those elsewhere in the media were being careful not to connect the shooting to the bombing suspects and left it as a simple act of violence. It is a big city; shootings happen. It seemed impossible it could be connected to the bombings.
So I went back to my smartphone, and there had been several more emails from friends who live in the Boston area.
What they were hearing was something out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
The information came like rapid fire. It seemed like an hour went by before television news crews got their acts together and started broadcasting from Watertown, Mass., in the middle of the night.
Not social media. It stops for no one and never sleeps. Social media instantaneously formed a massive wave of information, some good, most of it useless. The police scanner channel that Boston authorities were using was available online, meaning anyone in the country could hear, in real time, exactly what the police were saying to one another as the drama unfolded.
Being a police and court reporter, I know you don’t take everything you hear on the scanner as gospel, but it’s hard not to react to police saying grenades were being thrown at them and that the suspects had stolen a police SUV. Because of the unthinkable Boston Marathon bombings just days before, things that seemed too fantastic to be true were given more credibility.
Twitter and Facebook became tools in gleaning information, and the world was watching. Those living in the surrounding areas tweeted pictures and updates of what they were seeing of the shootout below them on the street. There was a video taken in Watertown, with what seemed to be a person’s cellphone, where many gunshots could be heard; a police officer begins yelling for someone to “get the rifles.” One image showed a bullet hole from the shootout that had gone through a wall calendar and desk chair. Getting those nuggets of information as they happened was invaluable, as it gave a real sense of what was happening without information having to go through a reporter, then an editor or producer, before finally being broadcast.
It was raw.
Other news outlets such as The New York Times and The Associated Press were also live-tweeting from the scene, but they were vetting their information.
Even when CNN was finally up and running, I found myself glued to the phone because television journalists, being journalists, had to confirm things before they announced them. Nonjournalists on Twitter have no such responsibility.
That turned out to be a problem as the event lurched forward across greater Boston. At one point, the two suspects were named on the police scanner. One of the names was that of a student at Brown University who has been missing since March. Both names turned out to be wrong, but as soon as the names hit the Internet, people were posting pictures comparing the men to the FBI photos along with links to the Twitter accounts of the newly named “suspects” — along with scrutiny in a search for clues as to “why they did it.”
But they didn’t do it.
Social media also became an issue of logistics for law enforcement. It came to a point in the manhunt for the remaining suspect Friday afternoon when law enforcement was pleading with people to stop posting what they were hearing on the police scanner, as officials were afraid the public could be giving away information to the suspect.
For better or worse, social media overtook television and online content as the go-to source for immediate coverage of the events.
The Boston Globe had a piece written, edited and posted with the most recent information it had just a couple of hours after the events started Friday morning.
But I didn’t read it. I was afraid I was going to miss something.
Eric Blaisdell is the police and court reporter for The Times Argus.MORE IN Commentary
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