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The Three Levels of Uncertainty and the Boston Bombings

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Written by on April 16, 2013

Yesterday, we all read about the terrible experience at the Boston Marathon. Two bombs exploded near the finishing line, killing three people so far and injuring 173. For anyone to commit such an act is beyond understanding or comprehension. The Boston Marathon is not a political event, or even an event associated with a certain country. It's an international event where people gather from all over the world to do what they love the most.

An attack on something like this is an attack on the very notion of freedom. Whoever did this is saying that people should not be allowed to enjoy their lives.

But I'm not going to write about the event, that's not what the purpose of this site is about. This site's purpose is to help people in the media industry to understand how to create value.

With all such tragedies like the one in Boston we see both the good, the bad and the really ugly side of the media industry. Everyone is trying to cover what is happening, everyone is feeling the pressure to be first, and the result is often that the media forget to care for the reader and instead start to speculate wildly about what may or may not have happened.

Some are truly trying to do a good job. Some are clearly not using their brains, and some are misleading people on the purpose to get more traffic. Most, however, are doing a bit of everything.

And even though this happens every single time, causing an increasing rate of negativity towards the press, the media just doesn't seem to learn the lesson.

From a trend perspective, the patterns are as clear as day. Since 9/11, which was the first big incident that took full advantage of the connected world, the public opinion about the press has been slipping. Before 9/11, people got this type of news via print, and mostly accepted the story because (by the time it hit the newsstand) it had been edited and curated so that it was actually valuable to read. But after 9/11, the connected world allowed everyone to follow the events live as they happened, unfiltered, and from thousand of sources. And the result is not pretty.

The role of the press in the event of a crisis is to keep people informed and be the place to go to both for getting help and understanding what it's all about. When people are running around scared not knowing what the heck is going on, the role of the press is to stay focused and find the answers.

That, however, is not happening in this age of livestreaming. Instead the press seems to be running around just as frantically as anyone else, reporting all kinds of strange things without giving people any kind of real insights.

In many cases, they are even making the incident worse by reporting rumors as facts, and tying unrelated events together that have nothing to do with what's actually going on.

The result of all this is an increasing trend of public annoyance with the press. Erik Wemple over at the Washington Post summarized many of these reactions in, "Boston explosions: Twitter acts as journalism's ombudsman".

People were saying: "Personally, I find it an act of respect to those implicated in the Boston explosions to avoid throwing out speculation and conspiracies. (@DanzaDragon)" and "As great as Twitter is for breaking news, the whole stream of uninformed and unhelpful speculation that follows makes my teeth grind (@ImTyUK)".

The same thing was being repeated over and over again while I was watching people's reactions to the event.

People are getting really annoyed about the press. And when a particular newspaper was caught in a lie (or what they call an unconfirmed rumor described as a confirmed fact), people rejoiced that the particular newspaper had been caught with their pants down.

This is not a healthy trend for the media industry. We already have the problem that 96% don't think newspapers are relevant, and that journalists are the second least trusted profession of all (ranking almost as low as politicians).

So how can we fix this?

Learn from the analytics world

One of the big changes in the world of media is the shift from pundits (or what the media calls 'experts'), to the world of data. And in the world of data, we have a very simple way to determine the trustworthiness of that data, and how we can then use it in our reports.

It's called:

  • Known-knowns
  • Known-unknowns
  • Unknown-unknowns

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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