An academic look at social media & disasters

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Photo from Mark Zastrow on

Written by: Dr. Janet Johnson

The Boston Marathon Bombing and the manhunt that followed taught social media users and legacy media that breaking news is not about being first, but it is about being right.

Even Twitter users started to question the reliability of stories during last week’s events.

“the janitor @ironjanitor 19 Apr Ill go ahead and start the #conflictingstories #bostonmanhunt”

“Sarah Hinds @sarah_hinds76 13h Repulsed by every major news outlet. Where can I find the police scanner? #BostonManhunt #watertown”

The Boston Marathon bombing has taught legacy media that they cannot compete with crowd source reporting. Legacy media needs to learn to work in tandem with social media and to create more factual stories rather than reactionary stories.  Not everyone who tweets reports the news– they are transmitters of information. Everyone who has a smartphone allows people to become instant recorders of events. People can take pictures, record videos, Tweet, and post to Facebook.  Reddit has even become a haven for amateur crime solvers.

Legacy media organizations have smartphone applications that allow citizens to upload their pictures and videos to their newsroom.  Many people at the Boston Marathon did not set out to become journalists. They became accidental journalists who just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time to gather information.

What happened between social media and legacy media last week is an interesting case study that our Emerging Media and Communication students are discussing in their classes. EMAC students are taught to become information innovators and to help develop ways to create better information pathways between mediums. The information gathering problems that the Boston Marathon bombing created has now become an example of why the Emerging Media and Communication program is one of the most important degrees in today’s informational society.