The coverage of Monday’s explosions at the Boston Marathon marked an evolution in the use of social media in an unfolding crisis. It was an effective display of how fragmentary information develops into a clearer story line — and of subjecting less reliable information to real-time scrutiny.
Many news organizations already had reporters, photographers, and videographers in place at the Marathon’s finish line, allowing initial news reports from the scene of the explosions to emerge quickly. Social media feeds filled rapidly with eyewitness accounts, public safety announcements, and up-to-the-minute reporting.
But, crucially, there was also a sense of measured restraint. Four months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at Newtown, Conn., reports misidentifying the perpetrator were widely retweeted. That tragedy left its mark on social media. Journalists, especially, were clearly warier Monday about letting misinformation spread. Many tweets, for instance, were careful to cite specific sources or to assure readers of multiple confirmations. It seemed that, for one day, being first had taken a backseat to being right.
For reporters, social media fulfilled one additional vital function that went unperformed in the aftermath of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina: In an uncertain situation, Facebook provided a way for reporters — like everyone else — to signal their whereabouts, telling colleagues and loved ones, “Don’t worry about me. I’m OK.”
None of which is to say social media performed flawlessly. Inflated fatality figures and unconfirmed arrests got around at lightning speed. Even then, journalists warned one another about the dangers of retweeting without sound basis. Amid the chaos of an event like this, there is never perfect information available immediately. What most news outlets steered clear of this time was making mere rumors seem like established fact — and assuming that information is true just because many others have tweeted it.