April 15, 2013 will be remembered as a tragic day in America’s history, but it may also go down as an important day in the evolution of citizen journalism.
In downtown Boston, an idyllic spring day turned into a nightmare reminiscent of the horrors 12 years earlier in New York City. At 2:50 p.m. EDT, two explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, an annual event held since 1897 that attracts 500,000 spectators a year. The blasts killed at least three people and injured more than a hundred.
The world watched in horror as emergency personnel treated victims with limbs blown off. It was a scene one might expect to see in Baghdad — not one of America’s oldest cities.
Thousands of people were assembled near the finish line that day, including journalists covering the sporting event and regular people using their smartphones to record loved ones completing their goal of finishing the race. In an instant, lives were shattered by violence.
“Citizen journalism” refers to public citizens playing an active role in the collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating of news and information. More accurately, April 15th was an instance of collaborative journalism as professional and amateur journalists worked together to get information out to the world.
Twitter erupted with details about the incident, including firsthand accounts from people like Bruce Mendelsohn, a marketer from The Hired Pen who uses the handle @brm90.He was in the office right above one of the explosions and Tweeted photos of the blood-stained sidewalk, giving details such as “I did see gruesome wounds and smelled cordite. My educated guess is that this was two bombs, detonated at ground level.”
The authorities quickly reacted to the fact that so many cameras were at the scene, reviewing pro TV footage and urging people to contact them with any footage of the incident and especially any photos or video of the area prior to the calamity. Their focus became high tech detective work, piecing together the pieces of a new media puzzle to identify a suspect who might have left a package earlier in the day before detonating it remotely.
Around the nation, citizens updated their social media accounts with reactions to the horrific news, adding texture to how the attack will be remembered by future scholars. These days, we all write a verse in the story.
There were the usual suspects in the fog of chaos: conspiracy theories about who was responsible, blind rage, and especially sketchy details and speculation to fill TV air time while the moment of violence played over and over on a loop.
“Wild speculation TV in full force,” Tweeted Fox Sports blogger Jason Whitlock, who uses the handle @WhitlockJason. “Days like these are when I’m most thankful for NYTimes, WSJ, WashPost, USAToday, etc.”
Cameras are critical to an act of terrorism such as this. The sheer spectacle of it makes it irresistible to view, and by watching it repeatedly, people either fill with fear and anger or they eventually become desensitized.
That afternoon, I was in my car driving home when I got a notification from the Breaking News app on my iPhone. I scanned the radio frequencies hoping to luck out on radio coverage, but there was none right away. I cranked up the CNN app and saw a livecast, but it buffered terribly and cut out as I steered my car down two-lane country highways so far away from the carnage.
Yet it was also there, in my car, unfolding as details emerged.
It was arguably more reminiscent of the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, but hearing about the second explosion in Boston brought back the terror of Sept. 11, 2001, when we all watched in horror as a second plane crashed into the second World Trade Center tower and knew in an instant this was no accident but calculated murder.
Eventually I found a National Public Radio station talking about the bombings, but the host offered no new details, only a rehash of what Twitter had told me an hour before and a warning that information via social media was likely bogus. It almost sounded like she was justifying her journalistic existence in a media landscape that functions like an echo chamber.
“Here’s what’s happening — but it may not be at all what’s happening,” she might as well have said.
Indeed, much of the information did prove to be inaccurate, some of it the result of speculation that is the nature of social media and some facts reported wrong by officials, such as the statement that a third device had been found at a public library when the fire there turned out to be the result of an electrical accident.
As the week progressed, CNN even (mis)reported on Wednesday that authorities had actually made an arrest, citing three sources. Other news outlets were then pressured to deliver the scoop before CNN made the humiliating admission that it had reported erroneous information. The FBI responded in a statement urging the media to “exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting… since these stories often have unintended consequences.”
Those consequences included a swarm of media and the curious assembling around a courthouse for a glimpse at the alleged terrorist who never emerged. The public did learn, however, that all of those photos and videos have led to some progress in the investigation.
According to the website Hypervocal.com, an anonymous television executive wrote an email to POLITICO’s media reporter Dylan Byers reading:
“The Fourth Estate, flawed though it is, was set-up to be a watchdog for the Republic. Is there now a Fifth Estate — the social media universe that purports to be keeping an eye on the Fourth estate but really is just looking out for themselves?
Despite our tendency to lust after breaking updates, human beings crave certainty in times like these. So it was entirely predictable that Tweets would emerge the day of the bombing offering prayers for the victims and encouraging donations to the Red Cross. It seemed like a new wrinkle that authorities would broadcast a phone number, 1-800-494-TIPS, for anyone to report information and arrange for inspecting photos or videos made prior to the explosions.
Google rolled out the “Person Finder” app for those trying to find a loved one at the scene or to report information about someone at the scene. And marketers who use social media were urged to shut off their auto-tweets to avoid appearing insensitive during a time of national tragedy, because the public might not be aware that promos are pre-loaded using applications like Hootsuite and not necessarily updated in real time.
Sadly, the wisdom to issue such alerts was earned from enduring too many recent tragedies sparked by senselessness.
With details still emerging, we have not yet realized the full impact of citizen journalism in the Boston bombings as people turn to their blogs to express their thoughts or share their accounts, as thousands of hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, and as investigators use electronic forensics to close in on a suspect.
While on the topic of citizen journalism, the week also offered amateur smartphone video of the moment when a fertilizer factory in Texas exploded, killing as many as 15 people, injuring at least 160 and flattening homes and businesses in the vicinity. And just like in Boston, dramatic images came in from ordinary people using ordinary tools during an extraordinary time.