Truth, immediacy and media

Last week was unarguably a horrible week: The Boston Marathon bombing. A deadly Texas fertilizer-plant explosion. Poison-laced letters mailed to the president and others.

The week, however, also underscored the symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media, particularly in Boston, where rumors and lurid hearsay abounded. There was the New York Post report of 12 dead—even as other outlets put the confirmed death toll at three. Or the way news of a Saudi man's detention went viral after the Post incorrectly identified him as a suspect. Then there was CNN, reporting that authorities had apprehended someone when, of course, they hadn't.

Still, both media platforms proved crucial after the FBI released surveillance footage of two suspects: Within hours, police were engaged in a standoff with the alleged bombers. Journalists scrambled to keep up. Online, one observer mused he was “watching traditional media die in my Twitter feed.” Others, conversely, argued that social media would be nowhere without the information it gleaned from TV and print.

But as we sat glued to our screens—TV, computer, tablet, smartphone—it became clear that we hungered for details and accuracy. To that end, I watched as Seth Mnookin, a journalist and co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate Program in Science Writing, earned 10,000 new followers in an hour as he tweeted live from Boston's front lines after the city went on lockdown.

Throughout, Mnookin tempered boots-on-the-ground swiftness with the caution of a seasoned reporter. His accounts served as a stellar example of how old and new media aren't mutually exclusive forces, but rather tools for the kind of reporting that satisfies a need for both immediacy and facts.