boston

Maybe. But we’re not there yet.

We all know social media and the Internet have changed how we report the news. But it’s when tragedy strikes that we see these changes most clearly. These are the rare moments when people’s demand for information outweighs the supply. When there’s no way for the average person to help, at least knowing what’s going on can be a kind of catharsis. And it’s a news organization’s job to feed this curiosity. So even when there are no new confirmed details or eyewitness reports to put forth, the talking heads keep talking and the Tweets keep coming, containing information that’s redundant at best and blatantly false at worst.

Today saw its fair share of unconfirmed reports treated as gospel. But after the deluge of doctored photos during Hurricane Sandy and false reports during the Newtown shooting, journalists and news consumers today operated with a healthier dose of skepticism, both of unconfirmed details and of social media scam artists attempting to profit from the tragedy.

Of course this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Hurricane Sandy took place over a huge chunk of the Eastern Seaboard, making it difficult to verify individual reports and photos. Unlike Newtown, there were thousands of people already on the scene in Boston when the explosion occurred. And even still, there’s a long way to go before we have suitable processes and protocols in place to ensure that factual information gets to the people who need it most as quickly as possible. But compared to past breaking news events, today we saw an increased level of maturity from social media and technology-enabled reporting that may provide a glimpse of what breaking news coverage can be in the future.

Not just reporting; practical help

Reporting on breaking tragedies is about much more than simply informing the world what’s going on. It’s about giving informational resources to the people who need it most. That’s where Google’s Person Finder comes in, a project that lets people search for or provide information on those involved in a tragedy. Today, Google created a special page for Boston marathon victims and their loved ones.

And it wasn’t just charities and technology companies providing real assistance to those in need. The Boston Globe created a Google form where Boston residents could offer their home to people from out of town who need a place to stay. And outlets like TIME helped Bostonians find places to donate blood.

More accountability for social media “charities”

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, Twitter accounts with names like @CTNewtown and @_Pray4Newtown emerged claiming that for every Retweet they receive, they will donate money to the schools and its victims. Of course neither account offered any assurances or proof that the ploy was anything more than a cheap grab for followers. Seriously, people did this and netted thousands of Retweets in the process.

Depressingly, it happened again during the Boston marathon, but users (and Twitter) were ready this time. Yes, an account called @_bostonmarathon (the underscore is the first tip-off) received thousands of retweets, which it claimed it would convert into thousands of dollars supporting victims of the explosion. But it was also met with an overwhelming and relatively swift chorus of blocks and spam reports that resulted in its suspension within about an hour of the time it began grabbing those ill-gotten Retweets.

Meanwhile, sites like Fundraise.com help ferret out real charities, like this one sponsored by a Boston Initiative called TUGG (Technology Underwriting Greater Good).

Greater skepticism

Throughout the day, as death counts and suspect descriptions from places like the New York Post turned out to be false or embellished, there was a much more cautious attitude on social media than during past breaking news events. Merely one source, or one news outlet’s report (whether it was from the Post or from a more reputable establishment), wasn’t enough to be considered “confirmed.” In fact, “unconfirmed” was the word of the day. Journalists were keen to avoid another “Ryan Lanza” situation when one fiction spread across the Internet and television screens in the media’s mad dash to be first. (It should be noted that misinformed media frenzies have been around for longer than Twitter. See Richard Jewell). That’s not to say there still wasn’t a ton of misinformation spread. But the biggest of these fictions, the “12 dead” report spread by the New York Post, was largely ignored by most other major news organizations. That’s progress.

Authorities working with social media, not against it

This afternoon, the Boston Police department Tweeted out a request for video of the finish line taken before and in the aftermath of the explosion in an attempt to determine what happened and who’s responsible. Security consultant Anthony C. Roman explained the rationale behind this to National Geographic: “Authorities can start examining the pictures and tapes looking for individuals near the receptacles where the bombs were found and individuals not fitting the profile of the general spectator can be identified.”

Compare that to the Christopher Dorner standoff when the San Bernardino DA asked reporters to “stop Tweeting immediately” because he claimed it was endangering officers. Of course that was a very different situation. Nevertheless, open lines of communication between witnesses on social media and police departments is an encouraging sign.

Video: harder to fake than photos

Hurricane Sandy was infamous for the fake photos that spread all over social media.

But with the rise of video-sharing apps like Vine, amateur cinema is the new amateur photography. And cinema’s a lot harder to fake. And while the first photos of blood-stained pavement still came tagged with the word, “unconfirmed,” once videos like this one started spreading across the Internet, there was no denying what had happened.

Quartz’s Christopher Mims takes the Vine argument a step further, arguing that the looping repetition of Vine makes it a more powerful tool for documenting tragedy than mere photography, citing this as an example:

Breaking news events are inherently confusing, and there’s no way to get it right all the time. And while Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Vine can be very effective at spreading truths and debunking falsehoods, it can just as easily have the opposite effect. What we saw today, however, is I think a step in the right direction. And we’re also beginning to see a separation between news sources that are able to relentlessly seek out the truth, even amid the noise and volume of social media (like Reuters’ liveblog) and the ones like the New York Post that play up unconfirmed reports for the sake of, what, pageviews? That style of journalism may work 99 percent of the time. But it’s when disaster strikes that we find out who we can really trust.

[Image Credit: Manu_H on Flickr]