The first draft of a horrific week of history

They used to call journalism the first draft of history. But that definition seems way out of date after a horrifying and unprecedented week of incidents across the US that led to multiple deaths, serious injuries, and shattered communities.

They used to call journalism the first draft of history. But that definition seems way out of date after a horrifying and unprecedented week of incidents across the US that led to multiple deaths, serious injuries, and shattered communities.

When the new pope, Francis, was inaugurated at the Vatican last month the pictures told the story of how consumption of information has changed exponentially in the eight years since his predecessor Benedict was sworn in. Comparing pictures from the respective events showed practically every single person in St Peter's Square last month recording the occasion on their cell phone.

In 2005, smart phones were in their infancy and social media had nowhere near the imprint, reach, and ubiquity they do now. Twitter had not even launched.

Fast forward to this week, a week that started with the tragic and horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon; continued with vast explosions at a fertilizer plant near Waco, TX; and is still evolving as I write this with an enormous manhunt for suspect two in the suburb of Watertown, MA.

The rules, if there are any, are being completely rewritten. Not just the rules of journalism, but also of policing, official responses to major incidents, and the role of the citizen. It also brings with it moral dilemmas. Should we show pictures of people with their legs blown off to illustrate the true horror of these events and the heroic acts around it, or is that an invasion of privacy and too graphic for universal distribution?

“The benefit of 24-hour coverage is that you learn things first; the burden is that sometimes you just don't know,” said one TV anchor this morning. In the days of the “first draft” all this activity would be going on just as feverishly, but we would wait for the version in our morning papers or breakfast TV  or radio show to find out about it.

In truth, that traditional media story was probably just as out of date as it is now. The difference now is that everyone can follow what is happening in real time on Twitter. At times last night the 24-hour TV anchors looked completely bemused and lost, while, on social media, witnesses to the action posted comments on Twitter and videos on Facebook. The two then merged when the TV stations started interviewing the people who had posted on social media to close the circle.

Then, during what we can only hope is a final manhunt, police were telling citizens not to tweet things that might compromise officers' safety. And media were not broadcasting things they were hearing on police scanners, for fear of compromising the operation, but also of making themselves look stupid.

And let's be clear on this, many mainstream media outlets looked very stupid this week, from The New York Post continuing stubbornly to stick by its story that 12 people died in the Boston bombings and then putting pictures of two “suspects” on its cover that turned out to be innocent bystanders, to CNN inaccurately reporting that a suspect had been arrested, to Fox News' breaking news email alerts that frankly became farcical as each one contradicted the previous iteration.

When the Texas explosions occurred in midweek and diverted journalists from Boston to the small town of West, we were reminded of the stretched resources of media outlets and the paucity of journalists in a modern newsroom. CNN's Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta and their colleagues on the other networks certainly clocked up some air miles this week. It was also a reminder of the need to have local affiliates to lean on in such crises.

But it was also a reminder that citizens are the new journalists. That's why the FBI released images of the suspected bombers to the public on Thursday afternoon. They knew that they would be able to tap into a vast repository of content and manpower that would supercharge their enquiry.

Within hours the terrorists were smoked out and we can only hope the operation concludes soon with no more innocent bloodshed.

The subject of branded content has been top of mind recently with observers such as Prudential Financial's Bob DeFillippo noting that the primacy of the fourth estate is still vital to a functioning democracy and that paying for content to appear can never rival earned stories in terms of credibility.

But to retain this credibility journalism must adapt to the new world very quickly, integrating social media more seamlessly within its coverage and learning how to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The journalistic process is much more transparent and that genie cannot be put back in the bottle. But that should not lead newspapers and broadcasters to jump to conclusions based on flimsy evidence in the race to break the story first.

And let's not forget that mainstream media can still be the best at putting events in context, analyzing their consequences, and offering perspective. One of the best pieces of content I have read this week was a column by The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen the morning after the horrific bombings. He encapsulated the feelings of a city, its fortitude, and its helplessness in a simply beautiful piece of writing, the likes of which we haven't seen much this week.

That is how I would like to remember journalism's contribution, rather than some of the nonsense printed in The New York Post. If we can concentrate on that level of quality then maybe journalists still have a shot at producing the first draft of history after all.

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