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Photo Credit: Luc Legay, Flickr User
Photo Cedit: Luc Legay on flickr (his social network)
– Creative Commongs

My phone illuminated late last Wednesday night: “Breaking News: There was just an explosion at the finish line of the Boston marathon”.

I’ve been living in Prague, Czech Republic for the last few months and before leaving, wished all my friends and family, most of which live around the Boston area farewell. I called home within minutes to see that they were okay, but much to my surprise, my question was met with disbelief – they hadn’t even heard the news.

My family lives 15 miles from the first explosion and here I was, halfway across the world, informing them on the breaking news thanks to the tools of social media. They soon turned on the television for information but as we know now, CNN fumbled with their information, The New York Post pointed us in completely wrong direction, and many other news stations followed suit.

David Carr of the New York times, arguably an old timer both in his physical appearance and preference of news sources says, “I find something to be comforting in the cable ritual of, turning on the news, hearing the words ‘we aren’t totally clear, we don’t know for sure’”, but when we are looking for an up to date feed of breaking news, the television may no longer be our best option.

On September 11, 2001, we all know exactly where we were and what we were doing when the Twin Towers were hit. Then for many of us, we all knew where we were after the attacks – in front of our televisions waiting for updates and information as the various news agencies relayed their updates.

But with social media, the days of waiting for journalists and news anchors to uncover the stories is over. A. O. Scott of the New York Times writes,  “If there is a journalist standing there in front of a news camera, you know that this person is not reporting – in my opinion it is the least reliable place to go, I would much rather go through the underbrush of social media and the internet and try to find people who are trust worthy and know what is going on”.

In the recent attacks on Boston, we know that the root of this misinformation news agencies were relaying was the use of unreliable sources (in some cases Twitter users, many of which weren’t even present at the scene of the attacks) pushing fallacies about the attacks for attention and in turn having the news agencies report on this as fact.We must understand though, that this is not the fault of social media. Social media is a free space for dialogue, opinion, reportage, and emotions. It is simply the fault of the news agencies, forgoing the steps of confirming a source as a standard journalistic practice before transmitting the information.

For many, the Boston Bombings have marked the first time in history where social media and the use of smart phones have played such a crucial role in the development of a story.

Twitter, a popular social media app and arguably the primary source of communication throughout the initial even and during the subsequent manhunt and arrest concerning the Boston Attacks, allowed regular citizens and journalists alike to post live updates to their Twitter account which then spread virally with live updates posted as the events unfolded. And its not only the everyday people who are a critical source of updates to follow on twitter, but federal organizations are now also adopting the use of Twitter to directly inform the public rather then sending the information to the news organizations first. 

When asking Katharine Q. Seelye, bureau chief of the New York Times in New England, how she was keeping up to date, she too turned to Twitter. “Both the FBI and US supreme offices were using Twitter to get information out directly and efficiently to the general public”.

Social networking sites like Twitter, as seen in Boston, are providing platforms for people to collectively connect and inform the world before the more traditional news platforms can – anyone present with a cell phone instantly becomes the worlds most important and up to date news source. This of course means that we must tread cautiously, maintaining a critical eye towards what we see and what we are told, but it has put us in charge of the information we receive.

For many, the days of sitting in front of a television, patiently waiting for others to update, inform and convey a story will continue to be the norm. But for those who have made the transition to social media for their updates, sites like Twitter have effectively become the go-to place for updates and live information. This means we can have the comfort of knowing, becoming aware, and staying informed on a story, even if it means we have to be our own personal censors, critiques, and editors of the media. The reality of knowing and proactively digesting the updates, is a lot more encouraging then being left in the dark.

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