Op-Ed

Chapel Hill shootings show new ecosystem of news dissemination

I awoke Wednesday to tweets about the awful killings of three Chapel Hill people. After I got the gist of the story – information about the shooter was still leaking out – I quickly came upon complaints that the “news media” weren’t treating the deaths of three Muslims with the appropriate importance.

The local papers and TV stations – local being the Triangle – were all over it. But I looked at Google News and the New York Times, and, in fact, the story didn’t rate much. But it was 5 a.m. so I wasn’t that surprised.

Then, at 9 a.m. the complaints about media coverage continued on Twitter. By that time, the Chapel Hill shootings were the top story on Google News, and all of the traditional national news outlets had the story at the top or near the top of their home pages. I mentioned that on Twitter. One response was that the Charlie Hebdo murders were all over the news immediately.

Two quick takes:

1. Small market + little information + overnight development = slow national media attention.

2. Worldwide market + passionate people on Twitter + enough info for 140 characters = viral attention

The background:

Location: Chapel Hill isn’t Paris. It’s a small market covered by a campus newspaper and with daily newspapers and television stations in nearby cities.

Time: The shootings happened at 5:11 p.m.

Information: Police released information slowly. Even relatives of the victims were begging for information at 8:30. Later in the evening, police were saying that no more information would be available until (Wednesday). At 2 a.m. police released the names of the victims and suspect.

Social media: Exploded with facts and speculation and concern and sympathy. And questions – about the shooter, about the family, about the news coverage. A hashtag #ChapelHillShooting trended worldwide. Still is.

It’s the perfect example of how the news ecosystem works now:

A news event happens outside the major media markets. People – journalists and citizens – on the scene tweet what they know and see. (Yes, some people tweet what they don’t know but guess. Deal with it.) In a city without a TV station or daily newspaper, news reports from traditional sources emerge more slowly.

The event happens in the evening and details – details that form the substance of reports for major media outlets – leak out in the darkest hours of the late night. 2 a.m.? I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that few reporters or editors are working at 2 a.m. Overnight crews at newspapers and TV networks might see them. But it’s tough to get confirmation from official sources at 2 or 3 a.m.

Meanwhile, people with interest and passion are following the tweets and retweets. Because it is the worldwide web, they are in different time zones. What’s 4 a.m. to me could be noon to them. The world there is awake while ours sleeps.

The story spreads and, with the vacuum of real-time information, questions spread. Where’s the information? Why isn’t the media telling us anything? Is this a bias against people of color? Of different religion? Of different nationality?

By the time the national mainstream journalism outlets get their boots on 12, 13 hours after the police were first called, many have used this as example of media bias and/or incompetence.

Maybe it is. But I think it’s more of an example of how the news ecosystem works now. Social media runs faster and hotter than traditional media, which is slowed by the need for official information, detail and verification.

It’s ironic that people are using the web to communicate throughout the world about the killings via Twitter and social media but don’t take a moment to search out WRAL or The News & Observer or the Daily Tar Heel to get real-time coverage. They have been on it from the beginning.

But that’s one of the points of the news ecosystem. I want the information from the sources I know. Many people will search for news – but many want it to come to them, to be where they are. And in this case, the big boys – the Times, the Post, the networks – didn’t have it. In effect, they failed their readers, through no real fault of their own.

I don’t know how traditional news outlets address this, and I hope smarter minds figure it out. It’s an issue of trust and of reliability.

John Robinson, an adjunct lecturer at UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication and former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, blogs at johnlrobinson.com, from where this is reprinted.

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