Yesterday, the conspiracy nuts at Infowars and the proud tabloid hacks at the New York Post, the amateur sleuths on Reddit and and the top-notch journalists at CNN shared something: They each failed to understand their new roles in a radically changed news environment.
The traditional journalists ignored the reality that their audiences were swimming in information, good and bad, and weren't waiting for anyone's permission to share it. The Redditors didn't realize that as many people were looking at their wild, superficially compelling speculations as at John King's. (The leader of Reddit's bombing investigation told BuzzFeed yesterday, in complete seriousness: "Things shouldn't be going any further than this forum and the FBI.")
The shift here is, basically, from the media having one major responsibility — finding, vetting, and sharing new information — to having another one: guiding an audience that has already been exposed to much more.
The job of a news organization — and of a citizen — has changed with frightening speed in a world where information is everywhere; where the tip line is public; where the distinction between source, subject, and publisher has blurred; and where, crucially, questionable reports and anonymous postings are part of the fabric of that story.
Under the old rules, a responsible citizen passed any potential bit of news he could find on to the professionals. The professionals collected tips, corroborated them, published the ones that panned out. Reporters could protect their readers from bad information — indeed, for reporters, the story was defined largely by what was kept from the public; for readers, the story was defined by the story.
But now we should assume our readers and viewers see virtually everything that we see. We can no longer decide which rumors and scraps of information should be dignified with publication — a sufficiently compelling scrap of information, be it a picture of a man with a black backpack or an anonymous, single-sentence Reddit post from the scene of the crime, will become news on that merit alone.
The tidbit that spreads the furthest, in the ruthless competition for attention, will often be the most shocking, the one most fully shorn from context. It may be crudely annotated photos assembled by someone who is unburdened by professional standards, unconcerned about reputation, and unfamiliar with the laws of libel and defamation. For him, verification and reporting are not two stages of a process, but contained in one action: sharing. He, with his virtually unlimited cohort, can force a shard of information into the public consciousness with or without permission from the traditional media gatekeepers. While there are still differences between professional reporters and anonymous posters on the internet, the visibility of their work isn't one of them.
Now, the original function of news organizations — uncovering and verifying new information — is as important as it's always been. But it's now become the crucial responsibility of a news organization to gather and contextualize information that the media didn't uncover itself. BuzzFeed yesterday referenced but mostly avoided linking to widely shared sets of photos, created by users on Reddit and 4chan, that highlighted dozens of different spectators at the Boston Marathon. Implicit in the post was a hope that the images, which were contributed anonymously and many of which amounted to little more than crowd-sourced profiling, would be ignored. But that hope was obviously in vain. The photos were soon stripped of their already thin context and reposted to conspiracy website Infowars, which was then linked by Matt Drudge. In the meantime, the original photos had been passed around Facebook, Twitter, and every other imaginable avenue, no doubt racking up millions of views.
By the time they were published on the front page of the New York Post, they had been unsubtly recontextualized as photos of the FBI's leading suspects, a framing that was immediately, convincingly, and belatedly challenged on Reddit, the very site where the images originated. This morning, one of the men in the picture, a high school track runner, took to Facebook to defend his name. "Shit is real," he wrote from his phone. "Everything is fake but god is with me." An ABC News story titled "Teen: I Am Not the Boston Marathon Bomber" didn't even mention Reddit or 4chan at all — 17-year-old Salah Barhoun's naming and exoneration, somehow, was the ultimate loss of context.
The media's new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it. A Reddit post seen by millions without context is worse for the story, and the public, and to the mission of reporting than the same post in a helpful and informed context seen by many more. Reporting is no longer a question of whether or not to dignify new and questionable information with attention — it's about predicting which of it will influence the story, and explaining, debunking, or contextualizing it the best we can. That is, incidentally, what our readers want.