“Real time” media coverage can have a profound impact on military decisions in the midst of warfare. Remember the First Gulf War and how media personalities like CNN’s Peter Arnett, the “Scud Stud” (Arthur Kent) and others provided “play by play” as viewers watched war in “prime time” from the comfort of their living rooms? Some media outlets were even warned that their coverage of scud missiles hitting ground in Kuwait and Israel might inadvertently be providing “targeting” information to the Iraqis.
Ultimately, the First Gulf War ended as images of carnage on the “highway of death” caused General Colin Powell to cease hostilities because, as he wrote in his autobiography “My American Journey,” the television coverage “was starting to make it look as if we were engaged in slaughter for slaughter’s sake.” Technology, and increased media access, has made viewing “real time war” an uncomfortable reality.
This past week we saw cable television and the internet (including Facebook and Twitter) bring terrorism, a criminal investigation and the apprehension of a terrorist suspect into “real time” as well. Most of the “post mortem” of the Boston Bombings has turned to “why”, “who else was involved” and the societal impact of terrorism reaching American soil in a way that Israel and others have contended with for years. However, the fascinating impact of the media, particularly social media, on the way that story played out in “real time” deserves significant analysis as well.
Americans watched the chaos of the Boston Bombings in real time and many of us had flashbacks to 9-11 and the days we spent glued to the television desperately seeking answers to what had happened and why. On 9-11 we collectively shared a common bond with New York City; last week the murderous terror attack at the Marathon instantly made us all Bostonians – at least for a while.
Almost immediately the social media sites became a repository for video and photos from the scene and amateur detectives began scouring the photos for clues to seek out the “evil” that had struck us. It was a target rich environment. It became a race, with some wondering whether the bloggers or the FBI would identify the perpetrators first!
After two particular men became the “target” of the blogosphere, and even made their way to the front pages of newspapers, the FBI decided to release photos of the alternative key suspects that they had identified. It now seems fairly clear that the FBI would have held on to the photos a bit longer and not actively engaged the public in the search if the online posse was not running so fast and furious. There are numerous media reports that the suspects were planning additional bombings. The preemptive release of their photos by the FBI, precipitated by the ravenous demand for instant information in the social media world, forced the terror suspects to move earlier than they had intended – and may have caused a series of mistakes that led to them being killed and captured. But for the social media and blog-tectives the carnage in Boston or some other target city might have been repeated with a second, more deadly attack.
The blog-tectives weren’t the only ones using social media. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apparently tweeting while hiding and on the run from authorities. Numerous citizen journalists captured video of shootouts and house to house searches with their ubiquitous camera-phones. America watched, breathlessly, on live television as the drama of the search for the remaining suspect played out…and then almost immediately after the search was ended (like a commercial break just before the detective show ends and the killer is caught) the climactic conclusion aired – in prime time. It was a reality show on steroids…but it even more “real” than reality television.
As we dissect the motives and movements of the terrorist duo, we should also examine the way media impacted the story. Much of what was reported by the mainstream media in the heat of the process was inaccurate, and some information in briefings provided by authorities proved false as well. Much of that is the peril of “live reporting” in the midst of a crisis. In the not-so-distant past, television networks gathered information, checked sources, confirmed the facts and then reported what they had gleaned throughout the day during their evening news broadcast. Now, EVERYTHING is breaking news and it is ALL reported on the fly. Mistakes are not only likely, they are CERTAIN.
Some media misinformation, however, was an intentional “shaping” of the story to fit a particular perspective, such as anchors speculating on “tea party” involvement due to the attack occurring on April 15 (“tax day”) with nothing more substantive than a calendar to back them up. Others “hoped” “white males” were responsible, and ignored the conflicting truth as it poured in. Some are STILL reluctant to see the motivations of the terrorists, despite “jihadist” intent obvious to even the most casual observer.
This will NOT be the last big story viewed in real time and in which social media will be a major player. So, what are the three major lessons to be learned from this episode? First, virtually everything reported in “real time” during the first twenty-four hours of a major story will prove to be inaccurate. Take a breath, be right rather than rushed and take every reported “fact” with a strong dose of skepticism. Some media outlets did better than their competitors this time. The rest should take notes.
Second, the role of social media, including instant analysis, real time photos and videos, and perhaps even interjection from those involved in the story (or their families) will only increase rather than subside. Get used to it…in fact some of the blogs that closely followed this story had faster and more accurate information than the “traditional” media. The challenge is figuring out which ones are accurate THIS time…as history won’t always be an accurate guide to NEXT time.
Finally, expect to be played. “Spinning” and “tweaking” the story will happen at an even faster pace than ever before. Immediacy will create opportunities for those who want to take advantage of the “speed” of reporting to input their own version WHILE the story is breaking. Anticipation and skepticism should guide news directors, reporters and bloggers every step of the way. The best reporters have always been armed with a strong instinct toward cynicism…and when EVERYBODY is essentially a reporter or commentator (at least everybody who is facebooking, twittering or video-commenting about the news), then EVERYBODY should acquire that same instinct. How? Don’t trust…AND verify.
Steve Gill is an attorney and strategic communications consultant based in Nashville, Tennessee. His website, which is always skeptical of EVERYTHING, is www.gillreport.com.