I’m sure I was not the only one to follow the tragic but thrilling Boston shooting story yesterday. In short, police were first alerted to a robbery and a car-jacking, where a police officer and one of suspects of the Boston bombings were killed, before a massive manhunt began for the second suspect. After several hours they discovered him in a boat in someone’s backyard and made an arrest.
What made this event more intriguing is that I did not need access to the traditional news sources – CNN, BBC – for my updates. In fact, had I done that, I would have completely missed the story, because CNN had followed a wrong lead, reporting on an arrest of ‘The Naked Man’, a man thought to be the suspect, forced to undress, but then released. Instead I followed Reddit, an online site where anyone can report news and post content. On Friday morning while at work I could follow a minute-by-minute update of the events in Boston, courtesy of JpDeathBlade, who live posted the news from police scanners. More extraordinary, I could log on to the police scanners myself, and half a world away, follow the search over my computer speakers – as it happened – for suspect 2.
It is, or should be, no surprise that the internet changes the way we consume news. The fate of newspapers to report ‘breaking news’ has long been proclaimed; gone were the days where newspapers could wait till morning to break a news story to an unsuspecting audience. But, in my opinion, the Boston events showed just how obsolete, and disappointing, TV news is.
Does that mean the end of newspapers and TV news channels? Certainly not. But it does suggest that a different type of journalism is required, a focus on more investigative journalism: instead of asking what happens, authoritative news agencies will have to investigate why it happens. When a newsworthy event happens in our area, Reddit and other such sources allow all of us to become reporters on the ground. The Oscar Pistorius saga is a case in point; most of South Africa stood still while his bail conditions were read, even though we followed tweets from those within the courtroom. To know what happens, we can rely on the law of large numbers.
But the law of large numbers falls apart as soon as we begin to question the why. (Again, the Oscar Pistorius case is a brilliant example. Here’s a warning: don’t read the comments section on any Oscar news article.) JpDeathBlade may bring me live coverage of the events as it happen in Boston, but I’m not sure I care much for his opinion about why it happened. That requires an thorough investigation; interviews with family members and friends of the suspects, sifting through tons of documentation, picking up clues, following hunches. And it requires high-quality writing. All of these require the skills of a trained professional.
For newspapers and TV news stations to prosper in future, answering the why is more important than reporting on the what. The internet can supply the latter much more accurately (and cheaply); the former is a product worth selling.