Does Media Help or Hinder War on Terror?

Wednesday, 12 Jun 2013 04:51 PM

By Jon Friedman

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Sparked by the advent of Twitter, the media is having a profound effect on how we fight the war on terror in the United States.

As we saw in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, a terrorist act can be carried out by a few lunatics and no longer need to be the handiwork of an elaborate international network.

Still, whether the act is local or global, the key question remains the same: Are today’s journalists in the mainstream and those engaging in the social media actually performing a greater public service or disservice for the rest of us?

Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Facebook are driving the conversation these days. Thanks to Twitter, information gets disseminated globally in real-time, warp speed.

Just click the button and your communiqué, whether serious or frivolous, is immediately transmitted everywhere, and then embedded forever in cyberspace.

When used properly, Twitter can be invaluable.

Veteran journalist and author Seth Mnookin, who lectures at M.I.T.’s graduate program in science writing, made his mark on the Boston Marathon coverage by tweeting information.

Mnookin sent out a rapid succession of dramatic, reliable and vivid tweets during the early-morning shoot-out between police and the two bombing suspects.

As it turned out, Mnookin got the story right — and did so right away. He single-handedly demonstrated the value of Twitter during a crisis.

Twitter can enable information to spread faster than the mainstream media. It can connect the entire world. When used in a responsible manner, Twitter can be regarded as the most progressive innovation in mass communications since the creation of TV news.

Yet, this high-speed technology tantalizes us. Yes, we appreciate how quickly the word can spread on the Internet. But we don’t always know how much — if any — of these 140-character bulletins published on Twitter, for instance, will eventually prove to be reliable and factual.

“Twitter’s fans like to say that social media can self-correct quickly,” Tampa Bay Times TV/media critic Eric Deggans recently told me. “And it’s true. But with Twitter, what you see depends on WHEN you see it.

“You could read a report that happens to be factually incorrect and isn’t corrected for 30 minutes. Problem is, you may not see the correction at all. It’s great that information is instantly available but it can also be a messy process.”

This point was not lost on old-media editors, especially during the gripping unfolding story of the Boston Marathon bombers, the manhunt for them and subsequent arrest of the younger brother.

New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson put it into perspective in early May when she said at a Wired magazine-sponsored conference in New York: “What was first and foremost in my mind was that our standard was understood by everyone.”

She had ventured into the Times newsroom at 1:15 a.m. on the early morning of the manhunt because she was concerned that her reporters might obtain a story from a reputable-seeming entity that “looked” suitable but was not. “It’s really important to lower the noise,” Abramson pointed out.

Robert Thompson, a media professor at Syracuse University, defends the record of new media versus traditional journalism in the Boston Marathon case, noting that major news outlets — CNN, most glaringly — misreported a key aspect of the story, namely that the police had arrested a suspect when, in fact, that bulletin proved to be premature.

“The power of social media is virtually infinite,” Thompson pointed out.

“Rule No. 1,” Thompson added, “is always to remain skeptical about what you’re hearing until the smoke clears and you get the whole picture. Consider the source. At the same time, journalists must regard social media with the same high standards that they give to work in newspapers and on television. Don’t treat Twitter as something lesser than the old media.”

Thompson sagely notes that journalists are always liable to make mistakes, in the hope of getting scoops. “Remember, he points out, “the ‘Dewey-Beats-Truman’ headline appeared in a newspaper.”

Which leads us to assess the responsibility of the mainstream media.

The terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon on April 15 came to underscore all that was both helpful and harmful in today’s world. The 24/7 cable news channels kept up a steady diet of coverage from Boston.

Displaying an ability to cover a story from multiple angles, no stone was unturned as they pawed at the truth of the story.

How sophisticated were the bombers? Why did the two brothers become radicalized while living in the United States? Were the terrorists connected to an international plot to undermine the United States? Why? Why? Why?

But sometimes, less is more, too.

I watched the cable-television coverage intently, like millions of people did across the U.S. We tried to make sense out of a senseless act. We groped to comprehend the logic behind an illogical act. And we turned to television news shows to inform and educate us.

But I must contend that television did a miserable job.

With rare exceptions, all of the TV news channels kept repeating the same points and showed the same footage. They spread more heat than light, unfortunately.

Yes, ABC News did yeoman work by speaking directly with the father of the accused bombers.

As Bianna Golodryga, who interviewed the man in Russian, related on the ABC News’ website on April 19 in a piece with her ABC News colleague Christina Ng: “The father of a suspected Boston Marathon bomber started to cry when ABC News told him that his son had been captured alive.

“‘Thank God,” Anzor Tsarnaev said, speaking in Russian, thanking ABC News for relaying word that his son, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was in custody and alive.

But unfortunately, what stands out from the TV news reporting was not Golodryga’s exclusive interview. Instead, we remember how CNN erred during the story and became a poster child for media irresponsibility at a crucial juncture.

CNN reporter John King, one of the most highly regarded journalists in Washington and a native of Boston, told viewers that police had arrested a suspect — which turned out to be premature and erroneous. King subsequently apologized and the world moved on.

But the damage was done, nullifying CNN’s bang-up television ratings during the Boston saga.

Worse still, the entire media looked foolish because one of their sacred cows — the self-proclaimed “The Most Trusted Name in News” — had rushed a flimsy story to the air and misled an anxious nation.

CNN employees that I interviewed afterward pointed out — correctly — that other news agencies had made errors during the tense coverage as well. But CNN’s gaffe stood out because a) we didn’t expect a network of CNN’s stature to get such a big story wrong and b) the mistake was positively egregious.

The Boston story, for all of the blurring between social media and old-school journalism offered a simple and yet profound lesson: Get it right.

But that is easier said than done.

Jon Friedman writes the Media Matrix blog for Indiewire.com. He is also the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution." Read more reports from Jon Friedman — Click Here Now.

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