Americans love speed. It is buried deep in their psyche. The fastest car, the fastest runner, and the fastest plane – it garners news and admiration. We like to know things quickly too. We honed radio, television and the Internet to move information with speed bordering on immediate. The good news is we move information fast. The bad news is we sometimes move it too fast.
Information used to move at foot or horse speed. If you were lucky, maybe 20 miles per hour given a good horse and good dirt roads. Once Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph and asked, “what hath God wrought” in a message to Baltimore from Capitol Hill, DC, we were off and literally running at the speed of electricity.
Soon, people figured out how to sell news based on that speed. Back in 1849, Paul Julius Reuter founded the first news service, which still bears his name. Through a combination of pluck, pigeons and the new telegraph, Reuter set the early standard for news delivery. His claim to fame was breaking the news first to London that Abraham Lincoln had been killed. For news organizations, there was no turning back.
Any of us who grew up in the last half of the 20th century watched that speed and volume of news delivery accelerate dramatically. The facts, sights and sounds surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 were known to most of America and the world within hours. By September 11, 2001, the world was able to see and hear the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers as it happened. The news of the recent Boston Bombings spread as quickly but far more broadly through social media. Old networks and newspapers could not move fast enough.
A New Era Dawns
The Boston Bombings were one of the first major news events of the Internet Age. Within moments of the blasts, major news networks were outpaced and overwhelmed by social media. Spectators at the site of the tragedy posted pictures on Facebook. Twitter exploded with relays of information from the area. Speculation ran rampant on the Internet about the bombers’ identity and intent. The dizzying volume and speed of information was breathtaking. So was the misinformation, rumor and desire to be the first – right or wrong. Thus the challenge of the Internet Age begins – can news be speedy and accurate?
Old information businesses like newspapers and magazines rely on the exclusive aggregation of information and verifying of sources. They are the product of a more leisurely schedule in a more leisurely time. They were also formerly the near-sole purveyors of the product – collected, collated, and analyzed for presentation to their subscribers. Radio and television came from the same tradition and were often controlled and manned by people who came from the newspaper industry.
What we saw in Boston is that the 21st century information business is exponentially more diffuse. As the cost of entry is minimal, anyone with a cell phone camera or a laptop can become his or her own news source and publisher. While the information provided can be dramatic and near immediate, it is often done without the benefit of context. It is raw material that is put out near instantaneously. A lot of the information is right; a lot of it is wrong.
The Trouble With The Need For Speed
For the Boston police and other first responders, the ability to “crowd source” vast amounts of information was both helpful and problematic. Information on the two bombers was almost immediately available through cell phone pictures, Facebook postings, Twitter feeds and other such “instant” news gatherers. The Internet, in turn, also allowed the Boston authorities to reach out to the public directly in unprecedented ways to gather and share that information.
The problematic part for the first responders and the public came in sorting out what was true and what was pure speculation. It also pushed people to either “lean forward,” speculating on little fact or downright lies to be a part of the speed “game.”
On the latter point, the old media CNN found out that not all “informed” sources were all that informed. In fact, they could be wrong when pushed for information. For the authorities, the vast amount of data to sort through was staggering in size and speed, contradictory, and sometimes just wrong. Speed and volume are not all they are cracked up to be.
The Search For Accuracy
The Boston Bombing set the pattern for the coverage and use of information in the Internet Age. The challenge as we go forward into this new era is going to be the ability to sort out the true, the untrue and the want-to-be true. Instant reporting of information is just that – instant. The value to it can only be garnered when you get a chance to put the information in context.
The need for speed is part of human nature. Since our friend Reuter first took advantage of the nascent technology to report first on Lincoln, we can get information with speed sometimes beyond human comprehension. It presses the human button, “I must have the story and I want it first.”
However, not all information is good, and while it may be available, it needs to be judged by sources and context. More than 150 years ago, Mr. Reuter would have admitted that fast is not always accurate. This basic principle of news gathering and dissemination will never change – no matter the mechanism of delivery.