Once again, Reddit is in the news for its role in reporting the news — but this time, the site has gotten approving looks from some for banning a thread on the site that was trying to identify the shooter in the attacks at Washington’s Navy Yard, the same kind of crowd-powered detective work that got the community in hot water during the bombings in Boston. Meanwhile, mainstream news sources like NBC and CBS tripped up while trying to do the same, and wound up identifying the wrong person as the shooter.
Does this mean crowdsourced media sources like Reddit are better than traditional outlets? Not really — but the opposite is also true. If we’ve learned anything about the news-reporting process in an age of real-time tools like Twitter and YouTube, it’s that it is even more chaotic than it has ever been, but as more than one person has pointed out, accuracy was a problem as long ago as the John F. Kennedy shootings and the sinking of the Titanic. Breaking news is an error-prone event and likely always will be.
Traditional media is good at certain things
Commercial or “professional” news outlets like CNN and the New York Times are good at certain things when it comes to a breaking news story, such as:
Getting through to official sources: This reliance on official spokespeople can also turn out to be a bad thing, however, as we saw in the Navy Yard shootings. According to one report, the mis-identification occurred because a “law enforcement source” assumed that a piece of ID found at the scene came from the shooter.
Aggregating verified information: Most newsrooms have access to an almost overwhelming number of wire services and other tools that produce both background information and breaking-news updates, and filtering through these performs a real service for readers during a crisis.
Crowdsourced media entities like Reddit and Twitter, meanwhile, are typically not very good at reaching official sources, although in many cases they are a popular place for insiders to post information that they don’t want to state publicly. But they are very good good at other things, including distributing (and in many cases fact-checking) eyewitness reports from the scene. This is something that traditional news outlets often give short shrift to, beyond sticking a camera in someone’s face or interviewing random passers-by for their thoughts.
Sites like Reddit and tools like Twitter can tap into a far broader range of sources about a news story, including people who work at the location or know the individual who is suspected of the crime. The problem, as with any such breaking-news incident, is verifying that information. And sites like Reddit are also good — perhaps even better than traditional news outlets — at pulling information together quickly from multiple sources, both official and unofficial.
Crowdsourced media has other strengths
Reddit in particular did this during the Navy Yard incident as well as the Aurora shootings, and during other breaking-news events too, such as a mass shooting in Toronto. In many cases, this consists of an individual starting a thread and then aggregating links to all the available sources of information in one place, whether they are news stories or blogs or other crowdsourced reports.
This is something that is clearly a journalistic skill, regardless of whether professional journalists want to admit it — just as someone like Brown Moses, the British blogger who has become a key source of information about terrorist weaponry in Syria, is performing a journalistic skill regardless of the fact that he has no training as a journalist.
What would be nice is if more mainstream or traditional news outlets not only made use of sites like Reddit by plundering them for information, but tried to actually help the process by contributing their knowledge to forums and threads — in other words, working together with crowdsourced resources to create a kind of new ecosystem of news, instead of just competing to see who can be the most wrong in the shortest amount of time.