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We’ve already talked about how Twitter has changed the way that real-time journalism functions during news events like the Boston bombings, by taking all the editorial activity that usually happens behind the scenes in newsrooms — the speculation, the fact-checking, and so on — and pushing it out into the open where anyone can take part in it. But it’s not just Twitter, of course: as we’ve seen this week, other social platforms like Reddit are also playing a growing role. Is that good or bad? As with most things on the internet, there’s plenty of both.
Within hours of the explosions in Boston, members of the Reddit community had created a thread (or sub-Reddit) about the incident, in an attempt to identify potential suspects. Users posted photos that had been published online or submitted by onlookers and analyzed video clips, piecing together clues like a specific kind of zipper that was used on a backpack found at the scene. Eventually, two potential suspects were identified — including one who posted a message on Facebook about his innocence.
Plenty of mistakes to go around
After some more investigation and crowdsourced information gathering, users on the Reddit thread seemed more or less convinced that the two were not likely to be the actual bombers, and eventually declared them “cleared.” Meanwhile, the New York Post identified the same two people as potential suspects and published their photos on the front page (both suspects have now been identified — one was reportedly shot by police on Friday and as of mid-afternoon on Friday the other was said to be on the run).
Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic wrote that the process taking place on Reddit amounted to “vigilantism,” and was reprehensible, and warned against encouraging untrained people to try and determine the validity of forensic evidence after such an event. But is what happened on Reddit so bad? And is it any worse than what the traditional media have done in similar situations? I’m not convinced.
Yes, users of Reddit made mistakes — plenty of them, including identifying the wrong person as a suspect a second time on Thursday after erroneous information emerged from police scanners and other sources, something which caused a considerable amount of grief for a young man’s family and led to an apology posted on Reddit by a moderator.
But it should be noted that CNN and the NY Post have made plenty of mistakes as well, something Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review doesn’t really mention in his post about how brilliant the traditional media was and how wrong Reddit has been. The larger point is that this isn’t an either/or situation — crowdsourcing is valuable, and has been valuable for journalism and will continue to be. This is admittedly not an example of it at its finest.
Remember when we didn’t think random people putting together an encyclopedia would ever work? And yet it has — in part because it has a lot more structure than Reddit or 4chan. And those sites would probably be a lot more useful in these cases if people spent more time thinking and less time typing. But that doesn’t negate the value they can provide. The idea of using the knowledge and resources of the crowd is the whole point behind Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s “open journalism,” and it is a force we need to figure out how to tame, not dismiss as irrelevant based on one incident.
Open journalism works better
Am I calling what Reddit has been doing since the Boston bombings journalism? Yes. It may not encompass the entirety of what we know as journalism, and it is clearly flawed, but it is certainly an important aspect of it — just as Eliot Higgins, an unemployed British accountant, is performing a valuable journalistic act (one that New York Times writer C.J. Chivers has recognized) in verifying smuggled weapons in Syria by watching hundreds of hours of YouTube videos every day, even though no one is paying him to do so.
Will Oremus at Slate makes a fairly persuasive argument that Reddit has in some cases been *more* responsible in its attempts to identify the individuals than some traditional sources, including the Post. This kind of crowdsourced fact-checking and verification of evidence has been going on for years — it’s just more mainstream now. And anyone looking for evidence of someone jumping the gun and encouraging vigilantism doesn’t have to look any further than CNN.
When I wrote recently about the benefits of having journalism occur out in the open, journalism teacher Steve Fox and others said I didn’t spend enough time on the need for verification, and maybe I didn’t, but I believe this also should be done out in the open. In fact, one of the benefits to doing so is the ability to have more eyes on the information at hand — thereby making it easier to filter out the noise and find the signal, or triangulate the truth. As Jay Rosen has said, journalism gets better the more people there are doing it. And that includes Reddit.