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W&L Professor Probes Downside—and Upside—of Social Media and Boston Coverage

As she watched the events in Boston unfold on television last Friday, Washington and Lee University journalism professor Claudette Artwick could not help thinking of a June afternoon 19 years earlier, when she watched a white Bronco lead a parade of police cars down Interstate 405 and through the streets of Los Angeles.

The O.J. Simpson car chase on June 17, 1994, was a two-hour TV event that two-thirds of the nation’s television households viewed live.

The similarity between the two events, said Artwick, was primarily because the TV commentators had virtually nothing new to add as the events unfolded, so they covered the same ground over and over. The difference was the prevalence this time of social media.


“We’re a culture that loves storytelling,” said Artwick, who studies how journalists integrate social media in their work. “We love drama. We love to know what’s happening as it’s unfolding.”

“The change from the white Bronco chase is the participation of the public through social media, and the integration of social media, traditional reporting, live coverage and police investigation. It all comes together.”

Much has been written about social media’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings. It has been labeled “the first big interactive news story.” Another piece declared the death of “old journalism.”

Artwick doesn’t go that far in her assessment of social media’s impact in Boston. But she does acknowledge that the move toward “a new way of knowing,” as media critics Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel called the shift in their book, “Blur,” gained momentum during the coverage.

“Instead of having the authorities of the mainstream media conveying their expert knowledge, coverage of an event like Boston is becoming more of a conversation,” said Artwick. “This is something that we’ve talked about for several years, and I think it’s developing more and more.”

Complaints about media coverage centered on the inaccurate reports that quickly spread through social media. This, Artwick reminded, is nothing new. The same thing happened when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011.

Artwick believes there was an upside to social media when it comes to the misinformation. Reporters, she said, are more vigilant of one another, moving quickly to correct errors of fact.

“There’s always been a competitive spirit in journalism. There has always been the desire to be first,” she said. “However, I think social media has brought us together and, in many ways, inspired more seeking of truth. I think that many journalists are really coming together and helping one another, because we want the information to be right. We want it to be fast, but we want it to be right.”

Although much of the focus of social media as it pertains to media events is on Twitter, one thing Boston did do was bring other platforms to the fore. Reddit was cited in much coverage, and the ability of people to listen to police scanners over the Internet had a major impact.

The danger, as Artwick notes, is that the information is raw. Nothing is confirmed, and it gets spread quickly without context. This new reality, she said, requires the consumers of news to be educated about this new world of media.

“Consumers have a responsibility to be aware that information may be unverified; that when the situation is tumultuous and information is coming from everywhere, we need to understand that not everything we see is true. We know that,” she said. “We’ve known that for years. But as things go faster and faster, it becomes more incumbent upon us to be aware of our sources of information.”

Artwick noted that the idea of citizen journalists is not all that new. She cites the case of the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, caught on videotape by a man who happened to be trying out his new video recorder on his patio.

“Citizens have been part of the mix, but technology is certainly contributing to this change,” she said. “As a journalism educator, I want to be sure that we open our students to understand this new way of knowing, understanding that there is a conversation. The conversation involves video and police scanners; it involves Reddit and Twitter and Facebook and traditional media. We’re all there together, and we have to be able to find a way to convey information that will educate us and help us to live our lives and govern ourselves.”

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