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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Boston bombings show how journalism has changed

By David Wilson
April 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

On July 24, 1984, a gunman went on a shooting spree in Hot Springs, Ark., killing five and wounding one. It made national news.

I was there, at age 22, working in my first week as a reporter for The Sentinel-Record, the city’s daily newspaper. After hearing details from the office’s police scanner, a few of us were sent to the address where police were converging.

It was quite an experience, witnessing the search by a SWAT team, amidst a chaotic scene of reporters, television cameras, and onlookers.

I gleaned all the information I could, went back to the office, and typed up a story for the next day’s paper. I typed the story because we didn’t yet have computers in the newsroom. There was no Internet access, no email, no smartphones, no electronic tablets, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Skype.

That evening, and the days that followed, were busy, as local and national media outlets swarmed upon the city to follow up on the story. Television crews from Little Rock were there, as well as reporters representing papers from various locations. On the evening following the day of the shooting, Peter Jennings reported on the event on ABC’s World News Tonight.

In those days the journalists were all over a story of that magnitude, just as they are today, but some things have changed.

Think about the recent April 15 Boston Marathon bombings and how we learned the details of that horrific event. We have 24-hour news coverage where professional journalists lead the way.

But they aren’t the only avenue of information.

As we saw throughout the week after the bombings, technology enables any citizen to be a reporter, capturing photos and video, and posting observations online or through social media.

The established news providers, whether they are as large as CNN or Fox News, or as modest as the small-town newspaper, do not compete with what may be considered amateur journalism, but rather they embrace it, often incorporating smartphone videos or Skype broadcasts in to their own reports. They also join Twitter and Facebook themselves.

That’s the look of 21st century journalism, a blending of both professional reporting and online interaction among community members.

A lively discussion on CNN on Sunday was insightful, summing up today’s world by saying we now have six major news networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and Twitter.

An Associated Press report Saturday by Manuel Valdes detailed how during the Boston manhunt, both police and the media were aided by citizens through online options such as Twitter, Reddit and 4chan, and concluded, “More and more news organizations have used them to mine information.”

Much of the change in media coverage has been rapid. We need not go all the way back to my experience in 1984 to notice the difference. A lot has changed in the nearly 12 years since 9/11, as AP reporter Jesse Washington wrote April 21.

"Although the scale of the Boston attack was far smaller than the destruction of the World Trade Center,” the report said, "a dozen years’ worth of modern media evolution made it reverberate in inescapable ways.

"In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends."

Lynda Kraxberger, associate dean for undergraduate studies and convergence faculty chair at the Missouri School of Journalism, also commented on the rapid change in the media.

"We didn’t know social media was going to play such a big role when we moved in to 21st century journalism," she said. "A lot has changed even since 2008."

A lot has changed indeed.

We have more options than ever and our younger generations, to stay informed, usually don’t go to traditional media outlets.

The danger in having so many voices speaking at once is that there is greater likelihood of erroneous information getting out, but there is also the benefit of being able to consider multiple perspectives on any given event.

If the average person wants to enter in to the arena of public discussion, it is healthy for democracy, but if he or she wishes to assume the role of reporter or broadcaster, responsible citizenship dictates that he get the facts straight.

This is not to be harsh towards those who want to participate. The truth is, the established media do not always get it right either.

It’s hard to be error-free when everything moves so fast. In the world in which I broke in to reporting, almost 30 years ago, the media had to go about 40 miles per hour and not make a mistake. Today, they have to go about 120 miles per hour, and still not make a mistake.

The burden is on all of us, as citizens, to wait patiently for accurate information.

As the Boston drama was coming to a resolution April 20 with the apprehension of the second suspect, President Barack Obama encouraged restraint.

He said, "In this age of instant reporting, tweets, and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important we do this right."

David Wilson, Ed.D., has worked for 24 years in Missouri public schools as a teacher and administrator. He has studied history, journalism and educational leadership. He can be reached at dwnotes@hotmail.com.