And now the news: Here’s what we *don’t* know at this hour…

I often tell my students that where they see a problem, they should find the opportunity. Well, we’ve been told over and over this weekend that we had a big problem with misinformation after the Boston Marathon bombing. Breaking news, haven’t you heard, is broken.

So I see an opportunity, a big journalistic opportunity. I also tell my students this:

* Journalism should add value to a flow of information that can now occur without media’s mediation — verifying facts, vetting witnesses, debunking rumors, adding context, adding explanation, and most of all asking and answering the questions that aren’t in the flow, that aren’t being asked, i.e., reporting. Let’s acknowledge reality: There’s no stopping or fixing that flow. What witnesses see will be shared for all to see, which is good, along with rumors, rank speculation, and the work of the New York Fucking Post, which is bad.

* The key skill of journalism today is saying what we *don’t* know, issuing caveats and also inviting the public to tell us what they know. Note I didn’t say I want the public to tell us what they *think* or *guess.* I said *know*.

So the opportunity: If I ran a news organization, I would start a regular feature called, Here’s what you should know about what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Last week, that would have included nuggets such as these:

* You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made so you should doubt that, even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

* You may have heard reports repeated from police scanners about, for example, the remaining suspect vowing not to be taken alive. But you should know that police scanners are just people with microphones; they do not constitute official or confirmed police reports. Indeed, it may be important for those using police radio to repeat rumor or speculation — even from fake Twitter accounts created an hour ago — for they are the ones who need to verify whether these reports are true. Better safe than sorry is their motto.

* You may see on Reddit that people are speculating about who perpetrated these crimes, including speculation that it *could* be a missing college student. But you should know that these people are merely speculating and that is about as useful as a rumor, which is worthless. That’s not to say that the amateur sleuthing could not turn up a connection to the crime. But so far, it has not.

* You may have heard reports that there were more bombs. But you should know that we cannot track where these reports started and we have no official confirmation so you should not take those reports as credible. We are calling the police to find out whether they are true and we will let you know as soon as we know.

* You may have seen the New York Post report that there were 12 victims and you may have seen it publish a picture of men with backpacks, implicating them in this crime with no justification. But you should know that this is the New York Post. Need we say more?

That is journalism. That is what every news organization and site should be doing. That they don’t is only evidence of a major journalistic opportunity, perhaps even a business unto itself: The What We *Don’t* Know News, the only news show you can really trust. It doesn’t ignore breaking news or what you’re hearing. It adds value to that flow of both information and misinformation.

On Howie Kurtz’ CNN show this weekend, Erik Wemple said that news organizations should report nothing until it is confirmed. Lauren Ashburn countered that police did not confirm even the Marathon bombings until nearly an hour after they occurred, so clearly that’s untenable. She’s right. But this is easily solved if journalists say *how* they *know* what they *know*. We know a bomb went off because we saw it and we’re showing it to you over and over and over and over again. We don’t know whether a suspect has been arrested because we didn’t see it ourselves and police haven’t told us yet and hearing it on CNN isn’t good enough.

That is journalism.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Yep, there’s just no way of canalizing the rush of chatter in events like this. That’s why I only tuned in periodically, and discounted much of what I was hearing even then.

  • johneey

    This is a great opportunity to express my feelings.I will try to regularly follow your posts.You give me very useful information that’s help me lot.


  • Tom Bubulka

    There’s your new show Jeff. Call it “Navigating the Stream”

  • Kevin Bonham

    This is a neat idea, but building a record as things are added seems more feasible than generating a record that you subsequently remove from. And are you limiting the list to things that have been reported but are not known?

    For instance, this list of things unknown *could* include the grade that the subject got on his last history midterm. But that doesn’t really seem relevant. And even if you stick to what’s been reported, I saw articles about a girl in NH that *might* have once dated the older brother. Confirmed? No. Worth reporting on? Probably not. Worth mentioning that it’s been reported but not confirmed? Ugh.

    I think people are slowly but surely learning that they shouldn’t immediately trust what the news says, the days of Cronkite are over. Eventually, we’ll all take this guy’s approach

  • sethgodin

    Yes. Now, to spread the ideas to the people behind the scenes (editors and their bosses) who continue with policies that humiliate those pretending to be journalists…

  • Rory O’Connor

    NBC Nightly News: “We don’t know shit.”

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  • Pies

    I agree. Don’t tell me what happened, and don’t tell me what you think about what happened. Tell me what you saw and heard, and based on that, tell me what you think has happened, and be clear about the distinction between the two. That’s all I require from a journalist.

  • Mike Downes

    In my view, there are three items: Journalism, News and Homework ..

    Journalism is the stuff found in leather bound books on dusty shelves that you look back on years later and say, wow do you remember that day, I was washing the dishes when I heard that. It is finished trusted thought.

    News is the stuff that is fast and breaking shoveled to you from reporters on the street and corrected from minute to minute. News is read by people who read nothing at all and once they’ve read it – it’s not news anymore.

    And Homework is the stuff that you hand to a teacher where the grade you receive is good enough to make you smile (or keep you from doing the lot again). Advanced Homework is something that includes references, sources and a bibliography. Some may call this Investigative Journalism.

    For me as an ex teacher, I read the News and look for the Journalism and see who has done their Homework. I wish I could summon a bunch of people in for a Summer School catchup, because they need it (based on last week’s texts).

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  • Shava Nerad

    I published a post on G+ this week titled “Media has Become the Enemy of Democracy.” It’s no longer an issue of journalism floundering, it’s taking the republic down with it. The media outlets actively work against creating any media critical public – it’s against their critical commercial survival interests. Something has to give, and I expect it will be institutional in the larger society before we see reforms that have journalism let go of their death grip on old models and truly find a new way that works for journalists and a healthy democracy.

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  • Perry Lassiter

    I recently read a great book on this subject called Blur. Bill Kovachs explores this topic in some depth and in various media. Among other things, he argues that print journalism has the advantage of time to do your homework to present more verified facts and opinions. I abhor their grasp of the obvious, which is why I watch sports without the sound. I rcommend the book to all journalists and to anyone who wants to be better equipped to sort through the flood of information.

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