Tonight I had the great fortune to attend a roundtable discussion at the Nieman Foundation on Journalism and the Boston Marathon Bombings with David Beard, director of digital content at The Washington Post, Cheryl Fiandaca, who is the chief of the Boston Police Department’s public information bureau, as well as having worked as a TV journalist in Boston and New York, Seth Mnookin, a journalist who was on the scene of the MIT shootings and followed the police all the way to Watertown, David Abel, a Boston Globe reporter who was on the scene of the bombings shooting video for a documentary he was making, Callie Crossley, who hosts “Under the Radar” on WGBH and Jennifer Peter, The Globe’s Metro editor.
Most of the discussion centered around the role played by social media in shaping and reporting the story. The title of this post comes from something Peter said about Twitter — and she was completely right. I got much of my information about the story — both the day of the bombings and the day of the manhunt — from Twitter.
Mnookin said that he began using his tweets as his notes for the story. After the discussion I asked him about his use of the police scanner as a tool for gathering information as he followed the story Thursday night and Friday from Cambridge to Watertown. I was curious because a lot of information that turned out to be untrue or misleading or irrelevent came through the scanner ( one of the people I followed closely, Garrett Quinn, urged caution with the scanner, but still used it himself to some extent). He said that while there was a lot of chaos, the information that came through that turned out to be misleading or untrue didn’t invalidate the use of a police scanner — the fact that a suspicious package turns out to be innocent doesn’t matter: the police still have to check out reports because they don’t know until they do. He also said that filtering out the important stuff from the chaos was a matter of listening to the speakers’ voices and partly a matter of instinct and experience, saying that when he was a cops reporter he would spend eight hours a day listening to the scanner.
Beard said that there were three important things to take away from experience: “Have a coverage plan, keep your antennae up for new tools and sources and verify, verify, verify.”
Peter said that the day of the Marathon most people who worked the Metro section had the day off because that day is usually given over to sports coverage. She had to mobilize her newsroom on the move while Beard had to put his into action from afar. One of the things many people mentioned was the absence of The Boston Herald from a lot of the on the ground reporting — they don’t have the staff anymore to provide the neccesarry coverage in the event of things like the bombings.
I asked the panel about learning the lessons from previous breaking news stories, drawing a parallel between the reports of The New York Post that a 20 year old Saudi man living in Revere was the perpetrator with The Post’s denunciation of Richard Jewell after the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996. The panelists pointed out that there was a lot of good reporting being done, but the things that reporters got wrong stick in the public memory more. Beard did confess that it was a scary situation to not have the Associated Press “holding our hands.”
Two interesting tools were demonstrated, one is Massively Parallel Database, or MapD, which can track geocoded tweets. The developer, Todd Mostack, showed the spread of Tweets across the country the day of the bombings. Keepr, a new app for finding credible sources in social media was demonstrated by the developer, Hong Qu.
The record of the livestream will be available later on.