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Summary:

While much of the attention during and after the Boston bombings focused on how one Reddit thread got things wrong, there were other important parts of the community that were doing good — and even doing something approaching journalism.

Although mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Post have come under plenty of fire for the way they handled information during the Boston bombings (Reuters even fired one of its social-media editors), much of the attention has focused on what Reddit got wrong — in part because it seems to puncture many of the hopes and dreams about the value of “crowdsourced journalism.” Reddit’s general manager has even apologized for the community’s behavior. But before we throw Reddit completely under the bus, I think it’s worth looking at what the network got right and why that matters.

Some of the commentary about Reddit and the bombings has made it seem as though all of Reddit was engaged in a massive “witch hunt” to find the identity of the suspects in Boston. But the reality is that other parts of Reddit were doing things that were much more valuable, and I think we shouldn’t lose sight of that. So here are a few things that I think Reddit got right:

  • It collected verified information: There were multiple Reddit threads that did nothing but curate or aggregate information about the bombings, including links to police reports, news articles and other sources. These threads also helped collect photos and video clips of the Boston marathon that might have contained useful information — and asked anyone with that information to also send those photos and clips to the authorities.
  • It helped people who wanted to help: A number of the threads early on in the aftermath contained lists of all the things that users could do if they wanted to assist not just the investigation but the people who had been injured — from links to Google’s Person Finder and the Red Cross help line to information on where to pick up bags left at the scene, or airlines who had changed their policies on cancelling flights as a result of the attacks.
  • It helped to verify facts: In most of the information-gathering threads, there is real-time verification of the info occurring, as users challenge other users to prove their claims. It is almost identical to the discussion that occurs on a Wikipedia “talk” page, in which editors try to verify the information that is being posted to an entry. Multiple updates occur within minutes of each other, and each one is marked with the time and any edits that took place.

Is Reddit capable of journalism? Yes

Even Reddit itself posted a disclaimer on one of its threads that said it isn’t trying to be a media entity, and that what it does isn’t journalism. And the user who created the “Find Boston Bombers” sub-Reddit or thread told The Atlantic that he doesn’t think of it as journalism either, and that no one should ever rely on such threads as a source because there is so much conflicting information flying around. He also admitted that the attempt to identify the bombers from photos was “a disaster.”

So if even Reddit itself doesn’t claim to be producing journalism, why do I keep saying it is? Because I think Reddit and Twitter and other social tools are broadening the concept of journalism. Some, like my friend Raju Narisetti from News Corp., believe that we should call this kind of thing something else — like that horrible term “user-generated content” — and leave the term journalism for things that are produced by professionals who are held to standards (although some might question whether the New York Post fits that description).

In a nutshell, I believe that journalism is being atomized — that is, broken down into its component parts. One of those is the news-gathering function, whether it’s from eyewitnesses or just on-the-ground observation. This part of journalism can and is being done by anyone, thanks to what Om has called the “democratization of distribution,” and it can be hugely valuable. And the verification function has also been outsourced, so that people like Eliot Higgins can play a key role in identifying Syria weapons without leaving their apartment.

Reddit may have failed badly in one specific thread, and that is unfortunate. But other parts of the site have and continue to perform valuable functions that I see as part of the broader landscape or ecosystem of networked journalism. Instead of focusing just on the downside of that community, we should be thinking about how to take advantage of it — how to turn a negative feedback loop into a positive one.

Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Shutterstock / wellphoto K

  1. “Find a new definition for non-journalism and use it. Why call ugc, crowds as journalism”

    Yup like when NYpost takes the ugc from Reddit and pastes on the frontpage :)

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    1. Indeed :-)

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  2. “I believe that journalism is being atomized — that is, broken down into its component parts”

    Concise and to the point.

    Also, a question to Mr. Narisetti: When your employer and many other so-called “journalists” blabbed about Iraqi WMDs, what do you call that?

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  3. David Brauchli Wednesday, April 24, 2013

    You Pal Alan Mutter disagrees with you Mathew: http://newsosaur.blogspot.sk

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    1. Yes, I know — thanks :-)

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  4. My approach is to watch the coverage evolve from rumor to increasing degrees of accuracies.

    In this time of instant reporting and crowd sourcing we need to develop critical thinking skills. Initial reports may be based on rumors, and inaccurate assessment by the authorities.

    In Boston, for example, I believe the police gave up too early. It was getting close to sundown and I felt they should have intensified the search not put a ‘feel good’ show of force on the streets. This was my critical thinking from watching CNN’s coverage evolve.

    By the way is anyone concern about the speed and efficiency the authorities shut down the greater Boston area? I know they said that citizen cooperation was a factor, but it still gives one pause.

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  5. Anthony Reinhart Wednesday, April 24, 2013

    I am optimistic that over time, all who participate in the exchange of news online – professional journalists or not – will become a) more circumspect news consumers and b) more responsible news sharers, simply through practice. And the world will be better for it.

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  6. News-gathering and disseminating the “truth” (reporting) is an important function within any democratic society and just as no one would want well-meaning amateurs carrying out surgical procedures, no one should be encouraging amateurs to take on this vital role, or at least no one should be taking them seriously if they do.
    Yes it can be argued that some of the so-called professionals sometimes seem to have an equally strained relationship with the truth, but all the more reason to demand improved standards, not dive headlong into the trough of ignorance and prejudice.

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    1. Don’t you get it? the only thing that produces something close enough to “truth” is the Scientific Method. Meaning comparing, reviewing, critique.

      By definition, this process delivers better results the more people participate.

      There are no “professionals” in the Scientific Method. Only people with more and people with less logic.

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      1. peter simpson Saturday, April 27, 2013

        No….. don’t you get it ? Crowd sourcing just results in mob rule as very graphically illustrated by the whole reddit/boston saga. Believe it or not there’s a reason (actually loads of reasons) journalists are trained before they’re entrusted with reporting events in an accurate, fair and unbiased manner.

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        1. Do you really believe that journalists are fair and unbiased?

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        2. peter simpson,

          the best training in the world does not produce an infallible god of truthtelling. Even the best journalists are still human and therefore potentially wrong.

          So if you want an informed populace, and not one that worships false gods, you need to scrutinize everything and everybody. And the more people scrutinize, the better.

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  7. I live in Boston and as the events unfolded very little real information was forthcoming. My local news had a reporter “live on the scene” but in reality (for his obvious safety) he was several hundred yards away. For hours the local tv stations kept rerunning clips of SWAT officers running around with their assault gear and forcibly detaining unwitting people from the neighborhood (the naked guy into the cop car on CNN is one example). The absolute best information I could find was put on Reddit by a computer science student, monitoring several scanner bands and other information outlets and consolidating the best information as it came in every few minutes. Inevitably I would see something on the Reddit feed about 20 minutes (sometimes much longer) before that information was disseminated on other source. I was not alone, he “crashed reddit” several times overnight because so many people were refreshing their browsers simultaneously to get new updates. Go back and take a look at his threads, he really did a good job. http://www.reddit.com/r/news/comments/1cw13b/live_updates_of_boston_situation_a_retrospective/

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