Seattle-based Breaking News, however, did what some failed to do: They reported only facts.
Breaking News is part of the NBC News Digital Network and owned by NBC News, but calls itself a “standalone startup,” working as a team of a dozen journalists across Seattle, New York, London and Portland. While mainly known for its Twitter account that has more than five million followers, Breaking News journalists post substantially more content via mobile apps and BreakingNews.com.
It was quite the week for the team, as news — both factual and false — broke several times on the television, across Twitter feeds and even police scanners. Tons of people turned to Breaking News, as the Boston story set all-time traffic records for the company.
Breaking News is in an interesting spot: It’s not a big TV or radio media entity, but it’s also not a random group of people firing off Tweets and Facebook posts. Rather, it analyzes content from both ends of the spectrum and then reports what it believes to be truthful news.
“The Boston story has illustrated that we occupy an important new space in the journalism ecosystem between news organizations and free-wheeling social networks,” said Breaking News General Manager Cory Bergman.
So how did Breaking News avoid getting caught up in the false reports? We spoke with Bergman, a longtime Seattleite who founded hyperlocal news network NextDoorMedia and also sold the Lost Remote blog last summer, to find out.
GeekWire: You guys have a very interesting position as a media company — you look across multiple sources, then report what you believe is truth. But you’re also about getting stuff out quickly. So, what kept you from posting/not posting content related to the Boston Marathon bombing? Did you just follow company guidelines that were in place?
Bergman: We’re an entirely different kind of news company. For lack of a better term, we’re journalist “curators” who watch the universe of breaking news coverage, comparing a given story against reporting by other news sources, officials and eyewitnesses. Using an internal chat tool, our team quickly makes judgment calls on whether we believe something is accurate, and we send out short updates with links to the original source that reported it.
In the case of Boston, our incoming streams were most confusing we’ve ever seen. “Lots of noise in the system,” was how our editorial chief Tom Brew explained it after several news organizations prematurely reported an arrest. We decided to wait because we were seeing several newsrooms openly question it. “I think this is where we can provide clarity versus confusion, and just hold a bit,” said Breaking News’ senior editor Stephanie Clary in the chat. “Because I think it’ll be more clear soon.”
This wasn’t an obvious decision: we were hashing it out in real-time, comparing different pieces of information. It seemed like we waited an eternity — which was agonizing for us — but within minutes it became clear there was no arrest. We tell our editors, “As much as we want to be fast, it never hurts to wait a beat,” especially when the stakes are high.
GW: How did you deal with the police scanner content?
Bergman: We did not report the police scanner or any of the inaccurate suspect descriptions, photos or names. We’ve learned over the last couple years from curating big stories that initial suspect descriptions are nearly always wrong, and scanner reports are unreliable. Because of the damage these incorrect reports cause, it’s our policy in circumstances like these to wait until law enforcement officials release that information.
With 250,000 people listening to the Boston Police scanner on the web on the final night of the manhunt, we saw a new phenomenon emerge: a large population of people tweeting updates from the scanner, which made some of them appear like they were covering the story firsthand in Watertown. This made it increasingly difficult to differentiate real eyewitnesses — “accidental journalists” — from people acting like eyewitnesses. Information was flying sideways, folding back into itself, sometimes making it into news reporting. Again, our Breaking News team slowed the pace of our coverage, comparing new developments from trustworthy reporters on the scene with official law enforcement sources.
Boston Police Commissioner: 1 suspect dead, 1 at large armed and dangerous. ‘White hat’ bombing suspect at large – @eddavis3
— Breaking News (@BreakingNews) April 19, 2013
GW: What role did you see Breaking News play during this whole thing? It can differ from local news, national news, etc. Where do you see yourselves in that scope?
Bergman: The Boston story has illustrated that we occupy an important new space in the journalism ecosystem between news organizations and free-wheeling social networks. News organizations provide trusted reporting and context. Social networks provide a torrent of eyewitness reports mixed in with opinions, fake reports and lunch pictures. We pull from both worlds to provide a reliable, real-time feed that helps reward news organizations with traffic and eyewitnesses with validation.
Even though we’re owned by NBC News, we’re completely agnostic in our curation, not favoring one source over another by brand name. This puts us in a unique position to fly at 30,000 feet and help bring a little clarity and order to breaking news.
GW: How have your coverage and guidelines changed, if at all, after all this?
Bergman: One of the biggest things we learned from the Boston story was to be more aggressive questioning sources. On the final night of the manhunt, Breaking News senior editor Dave Wyllie picked up the phone and called Boston Police to confirm a tweet sent by the police commissioner. It wasn’t clear whether it was a verified Twitter account — and the commissioner had just identified the remaining suspect — so we wanted to double check. Surprisingly, Dave got someone on the phone who confirmed the account was real.
One suspect dead. One at large. Armed and dangerous. White hat suspect at large.
— Edward Davis (@EdDavis3) April 19, 2013
We’re also debating whether we need to take a more proactive role warning users about unconfirmed reporting. Since Breaking News has a large following, we don’t want to participate in spreading questionable reporting by simply pointing out that something is unconfirmed. But sometimes silence is confusing: if we’re not reporting something, is it because we don’t know it’s true or because we haven’t seen it yet? There’s not an easy answer here, and it’s something we’re talking about.
Bergman: Personally, I don’t believe everyone is a journalist, but everyone has the capacity to perform journalism. I think “accidental journalists” are invaluable — people who suddenly find themselves in the middle of the story, and they’re explaining what they see. But crowdsourcing an investigation can be problematic. Reddit admitted that it had hoped its crowdsourced approach would not lead to a witch hunt. “We were wrong,” admitted Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager. “Especially when the stakes are high we must strive to show good judgment and solidarity.”
I also think there’s a growing risk around people who are covering a story for the fun of it. “Watching the new tweets pop up, I got a sense that the content didn’t matter as much as the feeling of being involved, the thrill of the hunt if you will,” explained Noah Brier, the co-founder of Percolate, after the Boston story. These thrill-seekers are the most dangerous, in my opinion, because they’re more excited about passing along new information than getting it right.
GW: Is there anything wrong with news organizations today? What should be fixed? Should news organizations use each other to help each other, or is competition good?
Bergman: If you walk into just about any newsroom — I worked at KING 5 for years — you’ll find a bank of TV screens monitoring coverage from the “competition.” The modern equivalent is Tweetdeck, where editors watch coverage from other newsrooms. The pressure to keep up is intense, and success is often defined by who broke the story first.
While speed matters, competition can get out of control. As the speed of information accelerates, I think the Boston story is a good reminder that it’s OK to wait. This will become even more important in the months and years to come as the noise intensifies. Citizens are becoming more accustomed to report what they see around them. Others just enjoy the thrill of reporting on a story — even from a distance — instead of just watching it on TV. And just wait until live video reporting becomes commonplace from mobile phones. News organizations have a responsibility to report what’s right and provide thoughtful context around why it matters.
Reach staff reporter Taylor Soper at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Taylor_Soper