I don't know if you watch The Newsroom on HBO, because if you don't, you really should. It is a great show that (admittedly) romanticizes the mainstream news media. Unfortunately, the show is entering its final season. Last night was the season premiere and I thought it raised some really good points. I was debating about putting this here or on my TV blog. I decided for here because the points I want to make go beyond what the show says, so here it is.
Last nights episode focused on the Boston Marathon bombing and on the impact of social media on the investigation. While I know there are a lot of people who love the fact that the "average" citizen can now directly connect with other people and share "news" with everyone, I do not like it. My reasons aren't that I only trust the mainstream news media, but rather that there are certain procedural safeguards in place in professional media outfits that are not in place on social media. Anyone on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. can post things and there is no solid way to make sure that the information is accurate before it is posted. As I've experienced firsthand, this is definitely a problem.
When I was working as an election judge during early voting, we had a few people come in saying that they had heard that there were various unspecified problems with the voting machines. When asked where they had heard this, they cited Facebook or other social media sites. The thing is that none of our machines were actually malfunctioning or anything. But we had these people coming in based on unsubstantiated rumors and almost yelling at election judges. And therein lies my issue with this type of "journalism".
How many times have there been rumors of celebrity deaths? How many times have people mindlessly passed things along simply because they heard it and so it must be true? Sadly, it happens all too often and from this spring all sorts of issues. Once something gets around the internet, it is deemed to be true and is all to hard to undo. People can be smeared and ruined on nothing more than innuendo and slanderous accusations.
And The Newsroom showed that vividly last night. People on Reddit or other sites sent around information claiming to have identified the bombing perpetrators. Subsequently, one of the "suspect's" family was threatened with violence, rape, and death threats. This was all despite the fact that the authorities publicly stated that that the men identified in the images were not actually suspects.
Please note that I am not saying that all citizen journalism is bad, but on the whole, I find it to be more harmful than helpful. Most people don't bother trying to take the time to sort out good information from bad information, so they just pass it all along. The longer it is passed around, the more likely it is to be accepted as truth. After all, someone somewhere must have checked it out before it was passed along, right?
I also realize that the mainstream media is far from perfect. All too often, they miss stories or get information wrong. A certain amount of that comes from the fact that they can be so focused on ratings that they make a move too quickly (witness Florida during the 2000 election) or the fact that a lot of what people call "news" is actually more entertainment (witness the proliferation of stories about celebrities and their antics) or even tabloid journalism.
Ideally, I'd like to see corporations removed from the news entirely, but I am not sure if that can happen and the newspapers still run and serve as many people as they do. Barring that, I think that there needs to be a firewall of some sort between the media and the corporation that owns it so that the media can truly be as independent as possible.
As for citizen "journalists", I don't know if there is a way to fix it. There really is no way to stop that sort of "news" from spreading short of putting some sort of filter on social media and that would cause more problems than it would fix. What we, as citizens, can do is to make sure that we check out stories before we pass them along. It won't necessarily stop things from spreading, but it may help to slow down the spread which would put something of a damper on rumors and other issues.