Three things that Reddit did right during the Boston bombings and why that matters

Although mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Post have come under plenty of fire for the way they handled information during the Boston bombings (Reuters even fired one of its social-media editors), much of the attention has focused on what Reddit got wrong — in part because it seems to puncture many of the hopes and dreams about the value of “crowdsourced journalism.” Reddit’s general manager has even apologized for the community’s behavior. But before we throw Reddit completely under the bus, I think it’s worth looking at what the network got right and why that matters.

Some of the commentary about Reddit and the bombings has made it seem as though all of Reddit was engaged in a massive “witch hunt” to find the identity of the suspects in Boston. But the reality is that other parts of Reddit were doing things that were much more valuable, and I think we shouldn’t lose sight of that. So here are a few things that I think Reddit got right:

  • It collected verified information: There were multiple Reddit threads that did nothing but curate or aggregate information about the bombings, including links to police reports, news articles and other sources. These threads also helped collect photos and video clips of the Boston marathon that might have contained useful information — and asked anyone with that information to also send those photos and clips to the authorities.
  • It helped people who wanted to help: A number of the threads early on in the aftermath contained lists of all the things that users could do if they wanted to assist not just the investigation but the people who had been injured — from links to Google’s Person Finder and the Red Cross help line to information on where to pick up bags left at the scene, or airlines who had changed their policies on cancelling flights as a result of the attacks.
  • It helped to verify facts: In most of the information-gathering threads, there is real-time verification of the info occurring, as users challenge other users to prove their claims. It is almost identical to the discussion that occurs on a Wikipedia “talk” page, in which editors try to verify the information that is being posted to an entry. Multiple updates occur within minutes of each other, and each one is marked with the time and any edits that took place.

Is Reddit capable of journalism? Yes

Even Reddit itself posted a disclaimer on one of its threads that said it isn’t trying to be a media entity, and that what it does isn’t journalism. And the user who created the “Find Boston Bombers” sub-Reddit or thread told The Atlantic that he doesn’t think of it as journalism either, and that no one should ever rely on such threads as a source because there is so much conflicting information flying around. He also admitted that the attempt to identify the bombers from photos was “a disaster.”

So if even Reddit itself doesn’t claim to be producing journalism, why do I keep saying it is? Because I think Reddit and Twitter and other social tools are broadening the concept of journalism. Some, like my friend Raju Narisetti from News Corp., believe that we should call this kind of thing something else — like that horrible term “user-generated content” — and leave the term journalism for things that are produced by professionals who are held to standards (although some might question whether the New York Post fits that description).

In a nutshell, I believe that journalism is being atomized — that is, broken down into its component parts. One of those is the news-gathering function, whether it’s from eyewitnesses or just on-the-ground observation. This part of journalism can and is being done by anyone, thanks to what Om has called the “democratization of distribution,” and it can be hugely valuable. And the verification function has also been outsourced, so that people like Eliot Higgins can play a key role in identifying Syria weapons without leaving their apartment.

Reddit may have failed badly in one specific thread, and that is unfortunate. But other parts of the site have and continue to perform valuable functions that I see as part of the broader landscape or ecosystem of networked journalism. Instead of focusing just on the downside of that community, we should be thinking about how to take advantage of it — how to turn a negative feedback loop into a positive one.

Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Shutterstock / wellphoto K