When a bomb went off in Boston three years ago, I was just going in for a class. It was a Monday. I did journalism at the university and my usual routine would be to browse through the pages of the online newspapers, but the headlines suggested a fairly standard start of the week. So I felt in the loop.
Then when there were some talks of a bomb going off. Me, the in the loop journalism student, felt quit sceptical about the rumours. No sign of it in traditional media, not credible enough.
It broke on Twitter. Dozens of photos and posts, this surely made it credible. I’ll always have that tranquil moment as a reminder of the events on April 15, 2013.
As news of the blasts and the subsequent manhunt spread, Twitter became a crucial part of the journalist’s toolkit.
It was where the action was live. In real time. With real people telling the story.
The two bombs went off within seconds of each other at 2:48 pm ET on April 15. Exactly two minutes later, the first tweet, with a photo attached broke the news.
Many followed. And many ran ahead of traditional news outlets.
It was a story of terror, certainly. But it was a story of the beginnings of online citizen journalism.
And when the Boston Police Department released photos of the suspects, thousands of citizens rushed to the FBI website. These amateur detectives made the footage go viral and beyond.
So while the whole virtual world was watching, even the police used social media to ask for help, update and announce the case as closed once Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured.
There has been no shortage of analysis and discussion over the impact that social media, and Twitter in particular, played in the events of that day and the week that was to come. While there’s plenty of praise — the excellent contribution of witnesses and the incredible immediacy of information — it wasn’t all good: the misinformation, the emotion-fueled speculation, the vigilante journalism were all matters that had to be looked over.
It certainly wasn’t a pretty picture, nor was it always an accurate account. The false identification of the criminal first on Reddit and then on the front page of The New York Post, the lazy and hasty reporting by traditional platforms serve as a reminder that instant virtual news streams can do very real harm.
And while we can’t stamp the consecutive role of the Internet on journalism as “all good” or “all bad”, in all fairness neither should we, one thing is for sure – there is no going back. This is how news was to be reported from now on.
And I can bet that when the next big event occurs, amateur detectives and online citizen reporters would be out there watching very closely.