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Reddit + Boston: Journalism gets better when more people are doing it

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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

Reddit stickers

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.


Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr users Christian Scholz and Eva Blue and Jan-Arief Purwanto

19 Responses to “Reddit + Boston: Journalism gets better when more people are doing it”

  1. Just a heads up – in case you weren’t aware – that the Nieman Journalism Lab (“A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard”), cited and linked to this post by you…

    In the paragraph just above the third photo (of the Los Angeles Times building).
    RE: Reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing: “Canadian student Jeff Cho also praised its transparency…”

    FYI. :-)

  2. “journalism teacher Steve Fox and others said I didn’t spend enough time on the need for verification”

    What they don’t get: There is no holy grail of officious “verification”. Anyone, including “officials”, can be wrong and/or lying. Nothing is ever truly verified.

    That’s why Mathew was so right when he wrote in some other piece that “journalism as in truth-finding is an ongoing process”. It never ends.

    And that is why, as is stated in this piece, the more people that participate in it, the better.

  3. Randy Bennett

    This issue is not MSM vs. the crowd. I strongly believe that collaboration between professional journalists and “the crowd” can only make journalism better. The problem, as Tim pointed out, is the obsessiveness of pushing out every bit of data as soon as we hear it. The true value is in fusing information from a variety of sources and then vetting for accuracy before broadcasting to the world. Asking questions (“does anyone know these brothers?”) before publishing the “facts” (“police think these are the bombers”) — regardless of whether you’re CNN or Joe Smith monitoring a police scanner, is good journalism. It’s a battle between those who are searching for the truth vs. those who need to fill up air time or are motivated by self-aggrandizement.

  4. Well, just because CNN and NY Post got it wrong, doesn’t mean it makes the “crowdsourced” effort any more effective. I encourage you to read Felix Salmon’s latest post – The social media tail mustn’t wag the MSM dog:

    “There’s an art to working out where to find fast and reliable information, and to judging new information in light of old information, and to judging old information in light of new information. And there’s an art to synthesizing everything you know, from hundreds of different sources, into a single coherent narrative. It’s not easy, it’s not a skill that most people have, and it’s precisely where news organizations add value.”

    • That’s a great point — and my response would be that those skills are more important than ever. The only difference is that I believe professional journalists at traditional media organizations aren’t the only ones who can do this.

  5. Wait — But shouldn’t the few people who do great Reddit journalism be lauded, and move into professional journalism? Keeping those few people who provide disproportionate value on Reddit in uncompensated and unsustainable positions hurts everybody. We need more excellent, paid, full-time journalists, not less.

  6. While it may be interesting to watch a first person account (or video) of an event such as the plant explosion in West, Texas, or check out a crowdsourced map or timeline of the events since Monday’s bombing, you really can’t argue against the witch hunt that took place on reddit this week.

    It has never, ever been part of a journalists job to look through pictures and pick out people that they think look suspicious, because they have brown skin and have bags. It’s even worse when this behavior comes from anonymous individuals behind their keyboards, who will not be held accountable for their actions, and even celebrated when they believed they beat BPD to identifying the suspects. Reprehensible behavior, to say the least.

    The fact that print news outlets also made egregious errors this week is NOT a viable defense either. The only difference is, as stated above, those individuals at places like the NY Post will (hopefully) be held responsible for what they did.

    Social media should be reserved for discussion of news stories, not for “reddit sleuths” to attempt to report on them by listening to police scanners and tweet about what they hear. I think Journalism professors with lofty ideas love to preach about the merits of citizen journalism, of taking back the news and having honest reporting that isn’t driven by ratings or political alignment. In practice, however, it often leads to dissemination of incomplete information that ranges from ‘highly speculative’ to ‘blatantly wrong.’

    But what about the old “marketplace of ideas” standy? Another favorite of professors. Well, redditors don’t usually ask for a second source before upvoting, and a retweet isn’t contingent on a fact check. Sometimes, it’s just the sheer volume of misinformation that makes it impossible to discern anything valuable. And that’s before you add in the blatant rascism, poorly-timed jokes and generally obliviousness that clogs up a twitter search. The marketplace wasn’t meant to serve a global audience.

    It has become apparent that the internet masses, no matter how well intentioned, have done more harm than good this week. And it’s going to take far more than upvotes to make up for the damage they’ve caused.

  7. Reddit didn’t “distribute false information” they created a witch hunt. Trying to identify “suspects” by looking at pictures has never, ever ever been part of a Journalist’s job, even by your loose definition.

    The fact that print media also made mistakes isn’t a good defense at all, and the issues with them, and what drives their need to be the first with a scoop (i.e., ratings) is a topic for another day.

    Following breaking news events during events like this can enhance them, through first person accounts or videos like we saw of the explosion in West, Texas, or in the shootout from last night. Crowdsourced maps and timelines of events can be extremely interesting to follow.

    A social media conversation about the news can be a fantastic way to follow events, but it should not be what drives coverage. Another part of journalism is research, and fact-checking and verification. And when that doesn’t happen, accountability. There is no fear of this from anonymous redditors (for example) typing away from behind their keyboards, picking out a kid with brown skin who was carrying a backpack near the finish line.

    The old ideal of the “marketplace of ideas” gets completely overrun. The best idea, or the truth, does not always rise to the top online. Redditors don’t double check facts before upvoting. Nobody asks for sources before retweeting. I think the larger issue is that we consider all of this “citizen journalism” which seems to just be a noble ideal preached by overly excited Journalism professors. In practice, we have seen far too much harm come out of social media this week – damage that will take far more than upvotes and favoriting tweets to undo.

  8. Rob Hyndman

    i’m tempted to say this feels a little like a requiem for the last days when this will be true. Or a memorial to the (relatively) brief period in journalism’s history when it was true.

    • I hope that’s not the case, Rob — I honestly believe that tools like Reddit and Twitter can help make journalism better. Maybe not in this particular case (or not as much as they should have) but over the longer term.

  9. The goal of “traditional” journalism isn’t to give good information; it’s to produce a product that is easily consumed. A news story in a newspaper that you read (and can’t respond to because it’s on dead trees) is like anything else you consume. You’re not participating in it; you’re just listening.

    Reddit-style journalism is more about trying to analyze and filter the information in order to produce something useful. It’s ugly, because you see all the behind-the-scenes scrambling that you don’t normally see in a dead-tree newspaper. To be fair, professional journalists usually have more experience at that kind of filtering, but the 24-hour news cycle (aided and abetted by the Internet) has propelled them to post everything they get as soon as they get it, accuracy be damned, which doesn’t do anyone any good.

    I’ve learned, in the past decade, to never pay any attention to mainstream media sources in the days immediately following an unexpected event, because a good 70% of everything they report ends up flat-out wrong. The Boston bombings are a perfect example: most of what was reported that day ended up just being wrong. And not just from CNN or other mainstream media; EVERYTHING I saw, even from individuals, tended to be inaccurate or out of context.

    The reason for this is obvious: It’s the fog of war. In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event of some sort, nobody has good info, because nobody knew it was coming (except for, in deliberate incidents, the perpetrators, who for obvious reasons usually aren’t sharing details). Humans are desperate to organize and understand what’s happening, and so we latch onto anything that sounds solid and plausible. Later, cooler heads usually prevail and we get more accurate info.

    I’m not saying that the MSM shouldn’t be blamed for wildly inaccurate reporting; anyone who reports inaccurate info of any kind on ANY subject, be it a CNN reporter on TV or the Internet, or some random Joe on some random blog, should be called out for it. Members of the MSM have a much bigger audience, however, and therefore should be held to a higher standard. With great power comes great responsibility, etc.

  10. tim schreier

    The entire week has shown me one major problem that has been coming for some time. Media and Journalism are not technology. Technology is not Media and Journalism. In the case of all of the erroneous reports (CNN, AP, NY Post, etc), there is a rush to beat the “other guy”. That “other guy” could manifest itself to be Twitter, Facebook, Citizen Journalism or technology news sites. It is a clear case of the dog chasing the it’s tail when Distribution chases Journalism and vice versa. This obsessive/compulsive need to be “first” with breaking news is nothing new but some of the players involved are quite new and some of the intent is to simply gain attention and spread information (regardless of facts) virally and exponentially (Buzz Feed, HuffPo?). This is like an arms race where the ammunition is speed and the pay off, again regardless of facts, is viral sharing and page views. A balance must be struck and the carelessness of this week’s events (be it the Post running two innocents, the false reports of arrests, the casualty counts and yesterday Reuters incident just to top off a week of examples) must be used as a learning lesson. Sadly, I doubt it will because many of the players are interested only in speed and page views as opposed to accuracy and accountability.
    Tim Schreier
    New York, NY


    The problem is, “news” outlets like the NY Post and, to a lesser extent CNN are the reddit of news outlets. Those at the Post knew it was probably a 50/50 shot at best that they had the IDs right and were willing to trade being right for the attention. Likewise, CNN is tasked with filling 24 hours with “news” and they use a network of sub-par reporters to do so.
    Everyone makes mistakes, yes, but some make more than others.