Social Media and Crisis Communications

Written by: Kayleigh Tansey, Chapter Member

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The bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15 was a huge event not only in our society, but also in the media. The events of that day were tragic and shocking for those around the globe, and our local and national media had the daunting task of keeping the public informed. For those of us in the Salem State chapter of PRSSA, these events were heartbreaking and especially scary being so close to home. They also offered us an opportunity to observe how the media operates in a crisis.

From the time when the first bomb went off Monday afternoon through Friday night when the second suspect was in custody, the media worked in a frenzy trying to get the latest news out at all hours. During times of crisis such as this one, it can be easy for false or misleading information to be broadcast on various platforms. The constant theme throughout the ordeal seemed to be a struggle between speed and accuracy in reporting. While many Bostonians agree that Twitter and other social media offered the fastest means of communicating information, it was also a source of a lot misinformation. That is the risk of getting information at lightning-fast speed: not everything is going to be accurate.

There was plenty of inaccurate information spreading like wildfire on social media and news coverage alike. CNN was perhaps the most criticized channel for their coverage of the events, losing many Twitter followers and their reputation as a reliable source of information. As early as the Wednesday following the attack on Boston, CNN reported that an arrest had been made in the case, which was completely untrue. Even before then, they published pictures of innocent people, painting them as the suspects in the bombings. Such indiscretions should be harshly criticized; as such inaccurate news coverage can come with hefty consequences. Fortunately, CNN followed one rule of crisis media by taking responsibility for their wrongdoing of reporting false information.

It seemed that information broadcasted on the Boston-area police scanners proved to be the timeliest, but was also sometimes inaccurate because nothing was being filtered through the media. Instead, listeners were hearing real-time police conversations, which unfortunately meant false alarms and perhaps misleading perceptions of the situation. However, if one could accept that it was a live stream, and therefore would include some misinformation, the police scanners were the fastest means of staying informed.

Overall, Boston media did a good job of informing the public on the series of events following the Boston Marathon bombings. As the audience and receivers of this mass media, we sometimes need to realize and accept that there are going to be indiscretions with certain platforms simply because of confusion and the speed of events. The media may be more effective by holding off on broadcasting information until it is more concrete or confirmed by official sources. But we can do our part as informed consumers of media by keeping in mind that in a situation where public safety is at risk, the first information we hear may not be the most accurate.

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