#52: navigating the new news ecosystem
spot news reporting, speed bumps and faster discernment
Earlier this week I got this message from a friend about a 2021 piece in Washington City Paper on spot news reporters on social media—i.e. ordinary people who publish breaking news by monitoring police scanners.
It was a really thought-provoking read that touches on questions I’ve covered before, like whether journalism should be a profession or a practice, and the fact that anyone can be a journalist today.
And in the case of crime reporting specifically, there are huge problems with the way traditional media approaches it.
If you want a quick masterclass on the issues, read these two pieces.
Defund the crime beat (Nieman Lab)
Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli’s 2021 take for Nieman Lab’s annual round-up of media and journalism predictions. It clearly spells out the issues with crime reporting in the U.S.
Darryl Holliday’s excellent essay on how and why we need to support public infrastructure to help more people produce civic information. Great primer for those who are new to these debates.
Then read the piece we’re discussing today, The Tweeters Behind Feeds Like DC REALTIME NEWS Make Every Shooting Known which walks through the work of a number of social media spot news producers of different ages and backgrounds. Here are my notes and highlights:
On intent and how they see their role:
Calhoun hardly ever switches off his tablet, the chatter from radio scanners serving as a soundtrack. His fingers fly as he tweets about local shootings, stabbings, fires, major traffic collisions, and water rescues. “My feed is providing public safety awareness,” he says. “If a shooting is going on, you want to know because your kids could be outside playing. I’m gonna get it out within five minutes of it happening.”
He’s carved out a role in local media because when reporters have to cover “such a broad spectrum of things like politics and pandas,” he says, they can’t get to every homicide. “That’s why I started doing what I do. Everybody matters. That’s why my feed has grown so much. I’m consistent with getting every single major incident out.”
Some others who run their own feeds:
Derrick, 30, goes to more scenes because he also uses Instagram, which is more visually driven than Twitter. The former dump truck driver transitioned to running Killmoenews full time about a year ago. He considers himself a journalist and calls his new line of work “modern day news.”
“No one in the house is watching the news on TV unless they’re older—my great aunts and grandmas,” he says. “It’s a lot of teens that look up to the page. I’m making the news popular.”
Cordell Pugh, an undergraduate student studying global health who writes for the MoCo Show, has been tweeting about Montgomery and Fairfax counties for a couple of years. He considers himself to be his biggest competition because school and friends also demand his attention.
“I originally started it as a traffic account when I thought there were many traffic instances going unreported and I moved into public safety when I noticed the same thing,” he says. “What I try to do is answer the simple ‘what?’ What are those 47 emergency vehicles doing on my street? I try not to get into motives or nuance, both of which can quickly be a slippery slope of getting one detail wrong or misconstrued.”
I’m a huge believer in the widespread practice of journalism and at the same time, keenly aware of the challenges of living in an information ecosystem that so filled with news. And as I’ve been mapping out this ecosystem in my own research, I’ve been trying to sharpen my questions about the pros and cons of professionals vs. ordinary citizens producing news.
Here are some pros and cons I noted down from the piece regarding this type of spot reporting specifically:
And for consumers, here’s a bit on the risks:
Consuming a steady stream of violent crime content without context, such as whether victims are random or targeted, can be problematic, according to Dr. Abigail Marsh, a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology. She studies emotional processes like empathy and how they relate to altruism, aggression, and psychopathy.
“It’s not bad to learn about crimes in general except that we’re not getting denominators—all the positive interactions that are going on in a city of 600,000 people every day,” Marsh says. “Those 600,000 people are helpful and trustworthy, but you’re not getting that denominator in the news. This is when people start developing the perception that the world is a much more dangerous, risky place than it is.”
As a result, Marsh says, people can become more anxious and lose trust in the people around them. She likens reading crime coverage without context to googling symptoms on sites like WebMD. You might put in that you have a headache and a fever and come away thinking you have cancer because you don’t have the complete picture a physician can provide. “You need a much more complete set of information to make good judgment,” Marsh says.
My two cents:
The questions this piece raises are a strong case for why we need to consider news from an ecosystem approach.
On the production side, yes, citizens are already filling major gaps in news collection and distribution and as Darryl argues in the second piece I linked above, better infrastructure (training and compensation) outside the traditional journalism model would help us scale this, especially in communities where access to sound, factual information is lacking.
On the consumption side, we just aren’t wired to handle atomized information without context or streams of information without speed bumps. I turn to police scanners and spot news producers on Twitter a few times a year tops, usually when something is happening in my neighborhood and I haven’t seen it in the news yet. And let me tell you, the adrenaline rush of those moments is dangerous. It quickly stops being about the news itself and often morphs into the thrill or fear of knowing-and-telling.
So I have no hot take on this, except that more people need to be mapping this evolving ecosystem and offering fresh ideas for best practices on both the production and consumption side. I’m so grateful for those who already are.
Since I try to offer how might we prompts on the consumption side of things, today’s is about speed bumps: How might we introduce speed bumps into our streams?
One observation: On a recent episode of Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter interviews social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who authored an Atlantic piece that has been making the rounds titled Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid about our relationship with social media. At one point, they discuss looking back at this time period on social media as the equivalent of when cars didn’t have seatbelts or safety features. Which got me thinking about safety features to implement on our own, one being speed bumps. In social situations, I find myself often being that buzz killing speed bump when I ask people “Where did you see that?” or “Why does this matter?” before reacting to whatever breaking news I’m being informed of. I have a harder time slowing down if I’m looking at a news feed silently.
Since today’s theme is already social media, here are a few recent additions to that cluster:
Social Media Use and Mental Health (Open Source Lit Review)
Ethan Zuckerman on Twitter, Musk and why interoperability matters so much
TLDR; I Tweeted Myself Into a Career and Now I’m Stuck Online (Catapult)
^this is such a lovely and relatable read from writer Leah Johnson
A broader challenge, the researchers noted, is that the Internet demands that students learn a new way of reading. Schools teach students to carefully read and absorb material from beginning to end – but textbooks and other school materials are heavily vetted, and the underlying assumption is that the content is valid and worth learning.
That’s exactly the wrong assumption and the wrong strategy for dealing with the internet, the researchers said.
“School is an analog institution, but the Internet is digital,” says Wineburg, “The lesson here is that the way to judge credibility is not by reading every word, which eats up our time and our energy. Instead, we need to use the power of an electronically linked internet to make fast and frugal decisions about what to believe.”
—Interesting discussion of new research from the Stanford History Education Group
Time Spent is an entirely free resource on media/culture and a public part of my writing practice. Spreading the word is immensely helpful as I test out some of this thinking.