photo courtesy http://www.photojunkie.ca/
About two hours before this morning’s grey dawn, a series of explosions tore through a propane depot in the northwest corner of the city, shaking buildings and homes, shattering windows and waking people as far as 10 kms distant from the scene. Fire and smoke shot to heights equal to a 20 or 30 storey building and led many to think (worry? fear?) that a jet airliner had crashed, a terrorist attack had taken place, the city was being bombed.
This was breaking news with a capital ‘B’ and at this point, six hours distant from that 3:30 am blast, it offers some intriguing lessons in how coverage of these events is evolving in a world where digital cameras and web access are almost ubiquitous.
Bottom line – in aggregate, citizens journalists out-performed their professional counterparts getting news out faster, offering more details, and better images and videos. They also made more mistakes and had a high noise to signal ratio. Mainstream media were slow off the mark and while they depended on the citizen journalists, they failed to make the most of the possibilities that material offered. See the bottom of the post for my thoughts on how to do that.
Toronto’s a media-rich city: four paid dailies, two free dailies, several city news blogs in addtion to more than a dozen local radio and television stations. I can’t cover them all, but took a look at the four dailies (
I did a
The Star, with the city’s biggest newsroom (although I can’t imagine they had more than a single person on duty when the first blast hit),
The Globe and Mail seemed entirely asleep at the switch, relying entirely on
The Toronto Sun, a local tabloid that should have positively
owned this story, proved weakest of all, offering a tepid,
staff-written brief, a still photo taken by
and the same, albeit spectacular,
used. (It’s embedded at the end of this post). I’d give them credit for
looking to the web for on-the-scene content, except they appear to be
using it simply as a replacement for their own staff, rather than a
complement to it. "Check back at torontosun.com for updates" it
promised, but for four hours they offered nothing beyond the original blurb. Finally more than six hours after the blast, they updated their coverage — they dropped in
The National Post turned to their Toronto news blog,
submissions and a fairly determined harvesting of public content on the
web via Flickr and YouTube. They created
locate the event, show the evacuation area, host photos and reader comments. Very smart and simple. Like
Torontoist – The local franchise of the continent-wide chain of place bloggers, failed miserably and utterly, totally ignoring a major news event in their town that closed major highways and led to mass evacuations. It wasn’t the first item they posted Sunday morning, nor their second. It wasn’t until almost noon, over 8 hours after it happened, that they finally put up
Final Thoughts: The best images (and video), without exception, came from citizens, who
ranged from dedicated semi-pro photobloggers to startled out of the
sleep cell phone videographers shooting from their distant, high rise
balconies. (Where the heck were the pros?) The best details came (eventually) from the mainstream media
who found and interviewed ground zero witnesses. But as the story was
developing the best details came from ordinary folks texting, emailing
and commenting. Nobody succeeded in blending together professional journalism with the best their fellow citizens had to offer. Nobody. The best either covered breaking news like they always do (The Star) with a few sprinkles of web pixie dust (adding the YouTube videos); or they did a great blog job for a while (The National Post), harvesting the best the web — and it’s citizens — had to offer, without ever doing the real journalism that sifts the
wheat from the chaffe and gives us a strong story rich with facts,
context, analysis, and colour.
There’s no reason we can’t do both.
Here’s how to do it:
When breaking news happens, start live-blogging it, relying on readers and fellow citizens to provide us with hot, local, first-person information (text, images, video – maybe even audio). Solicit it and use it — highlighting contributions while inviting more. Search the web for the contributions of others and link to the best.
At the same time let slip the hounds. Deploy professionals to do what they do best, use their skills and tools and access to bring back hard facts and colour, great images and video, to craft analysis.
Then have skilled web editors blend the best of them all into one magnificent package. Make sure you eliminate the inevitable errors of fact that appear during the rush of breaking news commentary and reporting. Use archives and the web to add context and a deeper, richer experience. Offer readers relevant resources and a space to share thoughts, stories, and comments.
That is how we should be doing breaking news. Why the hell aren’t we?