What the Boston bombings taught me about journalism

April 19, 2013

The events in Boston over the last four days have riveted the nation -- and put journalism, the profession that I love, under the microscope.  I've been thinking about what lessons I can learn as a political reporter from everything that has happened over these last 96 hours. My reflections are below -- in no particular order other than when they occurred to me.


1. Better safe than sorry. For all of the things that reporters got right this week, the after-action report will focus on what we got wrong.  The reporting that a suspect had been taken into custody on Wednesday became a story of its own, a development that no serious journalist wants to see.

The reality of a news environment driven by Twitter (more on that below), cable television and constantly updating news on the web is that the desire to be first has become all-encompassing. Everyone, of course, still wants to get it right but in the race to be first judgment about being right can get skewed. What looks like a solid source in the moment can turn into a less solid one 10 minutes later. (I have fallen victim to those same competitive pressures; I know of what we speak.) No one's reputation was ever hurt by waiting 10 minutes (or an hour) to make sure what a source is saying is true.

2. Twitter is a reporter's best friend...until it's not. I am a big believer in the power of Twitter. I use it daily. I think it has revolutionized journalism (and news consumption generally) in ways we are just now beginning to grapple with and understand. And, as expected, Twitter was the de facto news source for many people -- including most journalists not in Boston -- this week.

That was a good thing -- at times. Twitter helped me understand where the bombs had gone off, sent me to reporters on the ground in Watertown Thursday night and provided images of an empty Boston and the SWAT teams searching for the suspects.

It was a bad thing too. The immediacy of Twitter means that one moment of bad judgment by someone with lots of followers (or even someone without lots of followers) can distort coverage for minutes or hours.

I've started to think of Twitter as a well meaning but sometimes ill-informed friend. The friend isn't maliciously passing along bad information but also isn't an expert on the subject matter. That's Twitter. For every person on Twitter who has real expertise in a particular area, there a million people who don't.

So, trust but verify.

3. Primary sources matter...: Because of the general dearth of experts on any subject -- the Boston bombings included -- it's important to identify the people who really are authoritative sources and give them priority.

So, what the FBI and the Boston police department say (or don't) matters more than what some random person on Twitter -- even one affiliated with a news organization -- says or what an anonymous source might tell a reporter on TV. (To be clear, I regularly rely on anonymous sources for blog posts and stories but on stories of this magnitude -- and with such MAJOR national implications -- they should be used sparingly.)

4. ...and so do good reporters: People who follow me on Twitter know that i have spent much of the week praising NBC's Pete Williams who has been the star that has emerged from this dismal chain of events.

Pete stood out by reporting only what he KNEW to be true and making clear that there was plenty he didn't know. Ditto the Post's Sari Horwitz and Doug Frantz. (One of the bad tendencies of journalists is an unwillingness to acknowledge what we don't know. The truth is NO ONE expects us to know everything about every topic.)

Good reporters are the ones who take in all of the incoming -- from Twitter, from their own sources, from colleagues -- and filter out what doesn't matter or can't be proven. "The essence of journalism is the process of selection," Williams noted in a National Journal profile. He couldn't be more right. Judgment -- knowing what is and isn't news -- is the single most important trait distinguishing good reporters from the rest of the pack.

None of the observations above are either a) new or b) terribly original. They are the sorts of lessons taught in journalism school. They are the sorts of things that all journalists (at least most of us) know intuitively.

But, at moments of high pressure -- like this week -- sometimes what we know gets pushed to the back our collective minds.  It shouldn't. Ever.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · April 19, 2013