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Column: The Gap Between Facts and Comprehension

Palo Alto, Calif.

Inspired by the events of the past week, here’s a handy guide for anyone looking to figure out what exactly is going during a breaking news event. When you first hear about a big story in progress, run to your television. Make sure it’s securely turned off.

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC.

Now go outside and take a walk for an hour or two. Maybe find a park and sit on a bench, reading an old novel. Winter is just half a year away — have you started cleaning out your rain gutters? This might be a good time to start. Whatever you do, remember to stay hydrated. Have a sensible dinner. Get a good night’s rest. In the morning, don’t rush out of bed. Take in the birdsong. Brew a pot of coffee.

Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter. In fact, you’re now better informed than they are, because during your self-imposed exile from the news, you didn’t stumble into the many cul-de-sacs and dark alleys of misinformation that consumed their lives. You’re less frazzled, better rested, and your rain gutters are clear.

Breaking news is broken. That’s the clearest lesson you can draw about the media from the last week, when both old- and new-media outlets fell down on the job. By now you’ve likely heard the lowlights. CNN and The Associated Press incorrectly reported on Wednesday that a Boston Marathon suspect had been arrested. People on Reddit and editors at the New York Post wrongly fingered innocent kids as bombing suspects. Redditors also pushed the theory that a Brown University student who has been missing for more than a month was one of the bombers — a story that gained steam on Twitter Thursday when people listening to police scanners heard the cops repeat the student’s name. Though everyone should have been careful to dismiss chatter heard over the scanner, few did. Caught up in the excitement of breaking news, I was one of many journalists who retweeted news that the Brown student was one of the suspects —a fact that, in the morning, I feel absolutely terrible about. People on Reddit feel terrible about it too, though now the damage to his reputation has been done. (Although I’m choosing not to mention his name here, that’s not going to accomplish very much — it’s already been stained.)

Twitter’s comeuppance could not have come soon enough. Earlier in the week, many social-media tough guys were calling CNN’s failing a sign of the times — proof that cable news couldn’t keep up with the Web. CNN was criticized for not taking the time to check its sources’ claims that the cops had arrested a “dark-skinned” suspect. The failure seemed in keeping with cable news’ inherent weaknesses. News takes time to develop, but because cable anchors have to fill up airtime and want to scoop their rivals, they’re eager to speculate and grab at any halfway credible sounding story they hear from their sources. Twitter, everyone on Twitter agreed, was better than that.

Then, a day later, people on Twitter made exactly the same mistakes. Besides the mistaken identification of the Brown student, Thursday night’s tweeters — including many local reporters covering the manhunt — couldn’t get straight whether one or two suspects had been arrested, whether the suspects were dead or alive, and whether they were light- or dark-skinned. Even more weirdly, many on Twitter were now making fun of CNN for being behind — for not following the news in the same slipshod manner as Twitter. By staying behind, though, CNN avoided the Web’s embarrassment. For all its mistakes, the network at least didn’t falsely identify anyone.

The useful distinction here isn’t by medium. It’s silly to say that Twitter is a better way to follow breaking news than CNN, or vice versa. The real problem is that both Twitter and CNN now depend on technologies that make it possible to follow breaking news too closely.

We get stories much faster than we can make sense of them, informed by cell phone pictures and eyewitnesses found on social networks and dubious official sources like police scanner streams. Real life moves much slower than these technologies. There’s a gap between facts and comprehension, between finding some pictures online and making sense of how they fit into a story. What ends up filling that gap is speculation.

Farhad Manjoo is Slate’s technology reporter and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.