The Chapel Hill shootings and the news ecosystem

Update: Read Andria’s smart comment. It adds background I didn’t take the time to discover.

Update II: For the record, I’m not updating this post throughout the day. The national media have recognized the story. The local media are over it.

I awoke this morning to tweets about the awful killings of three Chapel Hill people. (link updated at 3:40 p.m. Wednesday.) 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 area — 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 back 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 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 today. 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 hastag #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. And I love my friends at AP, but with staff cuts, it’s not the quickest and most efficient operation sometimes.

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 to me 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.

11 thoughts on “The Chapel Hill shootings and the news ecosystem

  1. John, your post is spot on. The speed of social media and its ability to frame a story are frighteningly fast and effective. For this volatile story, it’s important to not only see how the story spread so quickly but also recognize those who reported it well and worked at the same time to warn against false framing.

    Wajahat Ali of Al Jazeera tweeted out the story to 19K followers about 1 a.m. EST, and he also shared the news on Facebook to about 5K followers about 2 a.m. EST, saying the killings were “execution style,” a phrase that’s problematic for me. At 3 a.m. on Facebook, he shared an excellent post that celebrated the victims’ lives and said, in part, “Even though it’s difficult, I’d urge some caution and restraint in publicizing details before they are official and confirmed, especially the motive for the killings. Emotions are heightened and incorrect information can be used in a reckless, unproductive manner.”

    His post was shared on Facebook by Noor Tagouri, a CBS journalist in Washington, D.C., with wide social reach.

    Locally, the Daily Tar Heel and WNCN, particularly Derick Waller on Twitter, stuck with the story until the wee hours, updating with the victims’ names and the charges for the suspect. Waller engaged on Twitter and followed the hash tags that began trending, trying to explain why national news outlets were slow to pick up on the story and urging people to read the known facts at WNCN.

    Overnight for the U.S., a columnist at the Telegraph wrote a post blaming the media for ignoring the story because of the religion of the victims. Those quick, emotional takes can be dangerous, and an awareness of time zones globally and how it affects media coverage is crucial.

    Andy Carvin’s new social-media news outfit, @reportedly, Storified overnight reaction and shared it about 9 a.m. EST. It’s here:
    https://storify.com/reportedly/three-student-heroes-murdered-in-chapel-hill

    Social media’s speed, and sometimes its emotion and outrage, combined with lower media staffing levels, can be a powder keg. Trust and reliability count, and the best we can do now is champion and share the trusted, reliable sources.

    And we can send our best thoughts to the journalists immersed in the tragedy and especially to the friends and families of the victims.

  2. Nonsense.

    Over here in the UK hardly any of the main media outlets are even reporting it.

    If it was 1 Muslim that had gunned down 3 Atheists/Jews/Christians/Hindus etc. It would be headline news over here and would be for days on end.

    Stop making lame excuses.

  3. Great thoughts, Andria: I’d only change one word. I don’t think “ability” is what I’d call it when social media frames an issue. I’d call it social’s “willingness” to frame an issue.

    If it were an “ability,” it wouldn’t be wrong so often. Users are eager and willing to frame issues, accuracy be damned.

  4. Perhaps a trite little factoid, but I surely did not expect it… The first I saw anything about the murders was about 6:30am EST and it was because the circle of Twitter accounts I’ve been following re Boston Bombing trial includes some Muslims convinced (as am I) that the government is botching the case. All the news-news feeds on UNC, North Carolina, and the South I eyeball caught up later.

  5. One of the errant things social media has done… especially out of the liberal armpit of the south that is Chapel Hill is add the “correct ” narrative.
    As exemplified in the rush to promote the #muslimlivesmatter hash tag… not #alllivesmatter… its now political and will find its way into the president’s comments I’m certain.

    Another emotional progressive with a gun kills people. The focus will remain on the white male w/ a gun…. and skip the progressive part as we have seen in so many shootings as that is not the “proper” narrative
    .

  6. I just would like to say I agree to a certain extent about the timing, but what I disagree with, is that with journalism comes a hidden agenda which most of the time is portraying Muslims as the “Other” and causing this binary between Us and Them. Especially with Islamaphobia and hate on the rise. It is not enough to say that people complaining about news coverage aren’t waiting patiently enough, or that Chapelhill is not as widescale as Paris. The fact of the matter is that 3 Muslims were shot dead “execution style” and the framework behind the media (prior to twitter trend forcing international media outlets to cover the issue) was hypocritical to portrayals if the role of the situation was reversed…i.e. Muslim killed Non-Muslim. This is mere fact and this is the cause of outrage particularly towards media outlets.

    For the Muslim audience whom have been constantly deemed as terrorists by the media when tables are turned media attention is little to none, until the people request it to be shown. Yes time is a factor as you pointed out, John, but it doesn’t count for 12+ hours just for some national coverage. 5:30 local news in Nowhere Alaska can make it to the 6:00 world wide news, so why can’t this?

  7. I’d like to add to Andria’s post that Tammy Grubb, a reporter for the local weekly, left the newsroom to cover the story at 5 pm — mostly likely near the end of her daily shift — and filed the information released by police in a story at 2 am. Above and beyond, and along with the other local reporters who stuck with the story, the reason why small-town newspapers are vital to us all.

  8. Pingback: #ChapelHillShooting | Clay Sutton

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