As a manhunt for the Boston bombing suspects unfolded in the wee hours of Friday morning, Twitter was the place to be for coverage. Brooke speaks with OTM producer Alex Goldman, who captained the late (really late) night Twitter coverage for On the Media.
Implode - Bottom Of A Well
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - which brings us back to that police scanner in the wee small hours of Friday morning, followed and tweeted by so many, including OTM producer and chief Twitterer, Alex Goldman.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I came home and I played Super Metroid for about 45 minutes and then I thought to myself, eh, I’ll just check Twitter before I go to bed. And our Twitter feed was just exploding with sort of incomplete bits of information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the story unfolding at that point?
ALEX GOLDMAN: There was a – an officer shot at MIT and there was an ongoing shootout and car chase. It was really unclear to me what was happening. I looked at all the news outlets I could find but, of the major news outlets, CNN, I think, was the first one to cover it, and they were really sort of behind the ball. WGBH was doing a decent job. WCVB was doing a pretty good job, which is a local Boston station. I thought to myself, I should check out the police scanner.
[POLICE SCANNER CLIPS]:
POLICE OFFICER: We have reports that they have explosives here at the scene. There are explosives here at the scene.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I’m lucky to have gotten on it because at the time I started listening to it, I think there were 25,000 people listening to it. People were already having trouble accessing it, and by the time that I disconnected I think there were somewhere in the ballpark of 80,000 people listening to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were you tweeting the police scanner compulsively, or did you have intent?
ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s a tough question. I feel like my intent was just to give a sort of snapshot of the confusion that was going on, on the ground. I mean, a police scanner does not create a narrative. A police scanner is just a couple of people giving bits and pieces of information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don’t know if that’s true. I was following it like a narrative, a confusing one, a fractured one, a broken one, kind of a chronological mosaic.
ALEX GOLDMAN: But the narrative is so incomplete, it doesn't feel to me as though it paints as complete a picture as even just a dashed off wire service [LAUGHS] news story. It just gives you sort of this concept of - of the chaos that was taking place. You know what I mean? You also have to consider the fact that they also use a lot of numbered codes and they say them all very fast.
[POLICE SCANNER CLIP]:
OFFICER: Five-five-three at 55 minutes.
OFFICER: He’s right above, above Ace 2.
ALEX GOLDMAN: I feel like there's sort of a bit of encrypted information that, as a layman, I don't get.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nevertheless, and maybe the movies have taught us this, they have the sort of zing of authenticity. And I asked on our feed, are scanner tweets any truer? One woman wrote back, “Yes, because they’re on the scene.” And then a man wrote, “No, this is just a conversation.” And sometimes the scanners make reference to things they've read on Twitter that are wrong.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. This morning someone created a fake Twitter feed for the suspect that remains at large, as of this recording and tweeted as though they were holed up and tweeting live from wherever they're hiding and tweeted something about how they were going to kill everyone because the cops had killed their brother. And that got repeated on the scanner, which then got repeated by people on Twitter. So there is definitely a calculated risk [LAUGHS] to repeating stuff that's said on the scanner on Twitter.
I mean, I made some of those same mistakes. There was a period of time where the police were saying they had a second suspect in custody. Then they needed a positive ID on that. And I tweeted that, but later it was corrected by news organizations and the police to say that there was one suspect dead and one alive. I really tried to be as judicious as possible, and I even tweeted at one point, “trying to find corroborating info from multiple sources.” And I was also following the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police on Twitter to see if they were delivering any updates.
There was also a couple of hours where it was unclear whether the first suspect taken into custody was alive or not, and there were conflicting reports, not only on the scanner, but on mainstream news outlets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you did something that we criticize a lot of people for, which was report things before they are corroborated by police officials, officially. That bothered you, right?
ALEX GOLDMAN: You know, I was really caught up in the sort of adrenaline of the moment, tweeting all that stuff. In the cold light of day, today, I do feel a little embarrassment about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Didn’t you say you felt like a schmo?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, I mean, I did. I felt like a schmo, sure. I felt like a bit of a schmo. You know, Andy Carvin, who tweets for NPR, is famous for tweeting unconfirmed information and then asking his followers to sort of corroborative or discount that information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But he's been criticized because by posting that information and asking for corroboration, he risks – and it often happens - that the material is re-tweeted, without that “ask” attached, as fact.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right, and I tried to source my tweets to the police scanner to let people know exactly where I was getting my information, but if [LAUGHS], if I could do it again, I probably would've been a little more judicious with the information that I got. And, in fact, as more mainstream news outlets started reporting it, I transitioned off listening to the scanner and just started re-tweeting the information they were giving because I felt like it was more reliable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m just curious, you do this. You get online and report breaking stories through the Twitter feed, you aggregate breaking stories. That’s not really our brief. That’s not what we do but, of course, you handle the Twitter feed more than anybody. What drives you to do it?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Wow, that’s a great question. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You could be playing Destructoid or whatever that game is.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh, Super Metroid? That is a – as much as I hate to admit this, and I'm almost scared [LAUGHS] that this is gonna end up on the air, there really is a thrill to being the first or being as close to the first as possible to report a story. And I don't think that there's anybody who reports news that doesn't fall prey to that. And there is a real immediacy and sort of a stimulus response to tweeting. It's like pushing the bar to get a pellet. It’s very seductive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alex Goldman, producer for On the Media, thank you very much.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Thanks, Brooke.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, reporters for Runners’ World had to improvise when, instead of a Marathon, they found themselves covering a tragedy. This is On the Media.