It’s been a tiring week for anyone in the media—and a sobering one for anyone in the media with a conscience. The coverage of the Boston Marathon saga, from the bombing on Monday to the capture of suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday, brought out some of the very worst features of news in the digital age. Here are the ways the media fail when they cover a big, breaking story—and a simple reason why.
1. The media get a lot of things wrong
There was CNN, desperate to be first in announcing an arrest, then clumsily backtracking. The AP did the same, as did the Boston Globe. The New York Post stubbornly kept exaggerating the death toll, long after confirmation to the contrary, and repeatedly identified the wrong guys as suspects. In social-media-land, a vigilante army witch-hunted the wrong people on Reddit and Twitter. Then there are the more right-wing outlets, with their increasingly rabid conspiracy theories that the real perpetrator is a Saudi or that the whole thing was a “false flag” attack, i.e., a put-up job by the US government.
And that’s just the big stuff. Anyone following along was subjected to a constant trickle of small errors and unverified information—and, in the best case, to endless repetition of the same paltry clutch of facts, padded out with vacuous blathering.
2. The media lose all sense of proportion
It’s not just that the English-speaking media devoted vastly more attention to a bombing that killed three in Boston than to, say, the bombings that killed 50 people in Iraq that same day. That’s fine; media cover things their audiences have a connection to. Nothing new there.
But American audiences also care, presumably, about ordinary gun crime, and domestic violence, and obesity, and car accidents, and opportunistic infections in hospitals, and toxic waste, and fossil-fuel pollution, and any of the countless other things that are thousands of times more likely to kill them in any given year than a terrorist attack. But the media don’t cover these with nearly the same intensity.
3. The media show things they really shouldn’t
“Grown-up media don’t show people with torn-off limbs,” tweeted Marcus Schwarze, an editor at the Rhein-Zeitung in Koblenz, Germany, after a grisly photo from the bombing made the rounds on several news sites. He followed up: “We should show nothing that my 10-year-old can’t sleep after. Describing it ‘graphic’ or ‘NSFW’ drives me nuts.” I don’t fully agree with Schwarze; I think reasonable people can debate which graphic pictures count as a public service and which as prurience, or whether a warning label makes them OK to publish. But many media outlets that once posed as prim guardians of their readers’ sensibilities now seem to treat those as the readers’ problem.
4. The media aren’t very good at two of their most important jobs
Job one: Answering the question “What’s happening now?”
Getting the answer to this, unless you’re a news junkie who’s been following along obsessively, can be surprisingly difficult. Sure, many outlets (like Quartz) don’t try to cover events minute-by-minute but instead choose specific angles. But even on the big news sites this week, it could be hard to figure out what was going on.
This is a problem of design. Most sites deliver breaking news either in the form of an article, periodically rewritten—which gives you some background, but becomes useless when news is moving fast—or a live blog, which is easy to keep current, but a lousy way of informing someone who hasn’t been keeping close tabs. And good live-blogs were few. (A handful of places, notably Circa, are experimenting with solutions to this design problem.)
Twitter was by far the best place to hear things first. All new information, both true and false, appeared there at once. Even if you didn’t have a television, you could follow the action on several different TV stations almost in real time, through people reporting in on Twitter. But again, for anyone not already immersed in the news, it was close to useless.
Even the meta-news outlets, Google and Bing, which have made huge efforts to adapt their search engines for real-time news, were a let-down when it mattered most. I searched them a few minutes after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was pulled out of his hiding place in a boat and arrested:
Job two: Answering the question: “Is such-and-such true?”
As soon as a false rumor hits the internet, figuring out whether it’s been debunked can take a good deal of digging, even if reliable news outlets didn’t repeat it. This, like the “what’s happening now?” problem, is one of design. News organizations are designed to tell stories. They’re not designed to organize facts. You won’t find a list of disproved claims about the Boston bombers anywhere. And if you search for a claim—like, say, the widely-reported allegation that they robbed a 7-11 convenience store before clashing with police—it may take you a while to find out that it isn’t true.
The root cause: the battle for attention
After Boston, some people—media people, naturally—have voiced the hope that either the media will become more responsible, or their audiences will become more discerning. But I think that hope ignores the basic equation of the media business.
The media make their money based on how much attention people pay them. Thanks to the internet, the number of people who can potentially give each outlet their attention has exploded; the number of things vying for each person’s attention has mushroomed; and the amount of money each sliver of attention is worth has plummeted. So all media are now competing in the same giant arena, for ever-smaller crumbs.
And when a big story fills the arena with spectators, the contest for attention becomes a frenzy, because we all know that the spectators’ attention span for any one story is short, but the reward for winning it at that moment is huge. And so we fight tooth and nail to grab it before it ebbs away.
The only way this can change is if the competition for attention shrinks. And shrink it probably will. We are arguably living in an abnormal epoch, one in which there are simply too many media. Lots of old-media outlets that once served distinct audiences but now compete for the same audience online have not yet died out. Meanwhile, lots of new outlets have been born that have not yet failed.
Some media will die out. What we don’t know is how long it will take. And we also don’t know what the ones that survive will look like. Will they devote the same disproportional effort to a few big stories, in their scramble to get a slightly bigger slice of the attention pie? Or, with less competition, will they find a way to make a living in more specialized niches? How much good the media can do in society will depend on the answer.
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An aside: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Quartz’s position in all this. As a global business publication with a small staff, we realized quickly that there was no point in competing with others on real-time updates, so we focused on finding original angles of our own. We were careful not to report as fact things that didn’t come from reliable sources. When we could, we corrected errors that others had made. We didn’t publish the goriest pictures. We did some things that I’m proud of. But on the charge of disproportionate coverage: guilty. At the end of the day, we’re in the same attention business as everyone else.