The recent Boston Marathon bombing and the events that followed it were a predictable, unpredictable news phenomenon. More people died in another soulcrushing purge in Syria and in the bewildering series of assasinations that were engulfing the Pakistani elections, but the bombing was a tragedy and a mystery and a new chapter in the America's megalithic, media-political post-2001 discussion about security. It took place at a major sporting event where both the media and the crowd had cameras and communications channels -- and it all played out to us in real time.
America's 24-hour news networks can be tawdry when there is no urgent news for them to chew on -- Fox News, especially, of course. (Check out this two-minute TPM compilation of Fox's idiocy last Friday.) But it turned out that the news team at Fox's Boston affiliate is a strong outfit -- for hours on end they supplanted Fox's idiot commentariat, to sometimes compelling effect.
Self-important photo-detectives at Reddit endangered the security of innocent people as they confidently picked out one "suspect" after another from the countless photographs of the scene. Appallingly, Murdoch's New York Post played the same game across the pages of an actual newspaper.
We could even play in New Zealand, and eavesdrop on the contextless, uncorrected noise of the police radio scanner being streamed to the internet. The spreading of noise went global. There were so many false reports that at times you'd have been net better-informed by simply knowing nothing.
And where there are unresolved noise, chaos and standing narratives, there will be conspiracy theories. So many conspiracy theories that the Boston bombing has the kind of file on Snopes that used to take months, even years, to ferment in the wild.
And, yes, I followed it all and sometimes joined in the frenzy. I retweeted stuff. I do, of course, have an excuse: it was for work.
But some Twitter reporters -- Wired's Seth Mnookin, caught up in the denouement at Watertown as he tried to get home -- were amazing to follow. He tweeted what he observed, sourced what he heard and corrected himself clearly and promptly if he discovered he was wrong. And the city paper, the Boston Globe, seems to have risen to the twin challenges of bringing big breaking news and addressing the wounded soul of the city. The sheer quantity of solid reporting archived on the paper's home page for the bombings is remarkable.
But do we need constant chatter? Couldn't we find something more useful to do than jonesing on a tragedy half a world away? Well, yes. But we don't need sport, porn or pop music either, and they're still all quite popular. (Again, it was for work.) Further, the collective viewing experience didn't start with the internet and it certainly wasn't ended by it.
The real-time news reporting environment spawned in 2001 has matured, if that's the right word. We're more guarded about the idea of "citizen journalism" now, but, equally, citizen reporters are a valuable part of the plan in every newsroom.
Including those closer to home. I noted the role of the "little pieces of a big picture" in writing about the September and February Christchurch earthquakes. We have even had our post-earthquake conspiracy theories. We're part of the picture, and the noise. Breaking news is broken and breaking news isn't broken.
On Media3 this week I'll be discussing these ideas with Tuanz chief executive and former editor Paul Brislen and Troy Rawhiti-Forbes, the social media editor at the New Zealand Herald. Matthew Dentith will also join me to run through the conspiracy theories.
If you'd like to join us for Tuesday evening's Media3 recording, come to the first floor of the Villa Dalmacija, 10 New North Road, Auckland, from 5.20pm for a 6pm recording. There will be intelligent company, food and congenially-priced beverages.