Coverage of the DC Navy Yard shooting

The recent tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington DC came as a shock to me, as any violent act of this magnitude does. We ask ourselves again how something like this could happen, a question we seem to ask ourselves more and more often.

My first information about the shooting came in the form of a ‘Breaking News” headline from the CNN widget on my igoogle homepage. As I checked back throughout the day more information trickled in from various news outlets. The events of that morning were beginning to be pieced together as information about the number and status of the victims came out and later in the afternoon as the suspect, Aaron Alexis, was identified and his background revealed.

I looked at three media outlets, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times in order to compare and contrast their coverage of the shooting. CNN offered a straightforward account of the shooting, arranged in a martini glass story form, editing their article to include updates as the identity of the shooter and information about the victims was revealed. MSNBC took much the same approach to covering the story, adding updates as the day wore on as well. The New York Times piece I looked at was a live blog of the story, incorporating social media updates as well as eyewitness accounts as more information came out.

Both CNN and MSNBC took a similar approach to covering the story. Each source gave roughly the same information from the same sources, understandable given that these were likely the only sources available immediately after the shooting. CNN gave more complete quotes, although MSNBC gave more information about the victims, including the fact that one was a law-enforcement official. Both made use of eyewitness accounts to piece the timeline of the shooting together.

MSNBC chose to include a lengthy quote from the DC Representative to Congress which didn’t directly impact the story at the beginning of the article, which I felt deflected somewhat from the impact of the story. CNN’s coverage gave a more direct account of the story, starting with an overview of what happened, describing the number and status of the victims, giving all known information about the suspect, and then addressing ongoing events related to the shooting.

Both outlets did a good job of providing new information as the day progressed, updating their stories as needed. They also avoided speculation or hype when information was lacking.

The New York Times article I looked at took a live blog approach to reporting the story, starting with when the story broke and following it closely as the government and the police released information. The New York Times blog made heavy use of Twitter posts as a source of information. This approach allowed for extremely timely reporting, but could have propagated inaccuracies. However, as the majority of the Twitter posts cited were official feeds, I feel that the opportunity to have up-to-the-minute information outweighed the risks, especially if sufficient fact-checking was done. The Times’ blog was organized much like the reporting from CNN and MSNBC, with an initial report of a shooting followed quickly by information about victims. Official responses to the shooting were relayed as they emerged, and eventually the identity of the suspect was revealed.

In all, I thought that the CNN piece offered the best synopsis of what happened, due to the organization of the story and the abundance of eyewitness accounts used to piece together what happened. The New York Times gave the best minute-by-minute coverage of the shooting however because of their use of Twitter and other outlets to gain quick access to information.

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The New York Times vs. Buzzfeed

The biggest problem I have with the news today is the commercialization and sensationalism of news stories. Sites like buzzfeed or reddit offer content which touch upon current issues, yet offer little explanation or in-depth coverage of a topic, relying instead on attention grabbing headlines and quick-hit lists which often look meaningful, but offer little of substance.

I myself am by no means above spending a few hours on buzzfeed, but I must remind myself to be careful. Nuggets of entertainment like “26 Issues the United States are not totally united on” can stand in for actual reporting and give the false impression that you are keeping yourself informed about the world. Articles like this are the literary equivalent of junk food, they fill you up but leave you hungry for more half an hour later. Continuing with the simile, an article from the New York Times about the ongoing crisis in Syria offers in depth reporting about an event which could impact international relations for decades to come.

Articles from the New York TImes and similar publications can be long and sometimes dense, meaning that they require more effort than your typical buzzfeed post. The nature of the Internet is such that quick gratification is prized over lengthy explanation. It is often hard for me to read through an entire article from the Economist when a thousand entertaining lists about celebrity dogs are a click away.

In order for the New York Times, and buzzfeed even, to survive, a common ground must be found. As print publications have repeatedly found, transferring their format to the Internet is hard. Media native to the web have a much easier time of attracting followers, simply because they utilize the Internet’s strengths much better. The use of links, info-graphics, and interactive apps is key to garnering hits. At the same time, the content must exist as well; you can only make celebrity dogs sound so exciting. For the sake of their survival, and for our sake as well, both buzzfeed and the New York Times should take a hint from each other. Steps have been made in this direction; buzzfeed offers actual news stories, and the Times incorporates interactive features and graphics into its online stories. But I think that there is much more that could be done. Could a hybrid of buzzfeed and the New York Times be the future of the online media?