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Twitter comes of age in Moncton tragedy

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Like many, I heard about what was unfolding in Moncton last Wednesday evening from Twitter. And like many I was overcome with the horror of it, and the profound sadness at the loss of those lives and the bravery of the emergency responders who had to venture into the face of danger while everyone else was trying to avoid it.

I spend Wednesday night and into the wee hours of Thursday with my computer on my lap, and dial surfing for coverage on television.

The drama of what was unfolding brought me to back to 1974 and the police murders in Moncton. I was a junior reporter at a Moncton radio station then, and in those days, everyone turned to radio for the most recent information. One of the murderers was on the loose for quiet some time so you had the same kind of tenseness throughout the city as the search for him continued.

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Flash ahead four decades and it's the same scenario but my how the dissemination of information, and the role of journalism has changed.

Radio is a shadow of what it was then, having long ago surrendered the biggest part of their newsrooms on the alter of profit. So people had learned long ago they couldn't rely on radio for updates on community emergencies like they used to. In fact we have a generation that doesn't even know it used to be different.

Now it is about social media, especially until live television catches up.

Once thing that struck me about last Wednesday is that, in Moncton, it is when Twitter came of age. Just as it had in Boston with the Marathon bombers a year before.

Through Moncton, across New Brunswick and beyond, people turned to Twitter, and it had blown up, with all manner of citizen journalist spreading important information to stay away from certain areas.

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What happened that night and over the following hours until it ended, was a test for traditional journalists as well as for the RCMP, and it underlined that they both do have a definitive place in this world of social media, and that place is not to compete with it, but to engage in it, and be the voice of verification.

Social media has caused trepidation of both mainstream journalists and police organizations over where it would leave them when it comes to communications and doing their job. After all, social media is something they can't control and in an emergency situation more so than at any other time, police want to have control. And for journalists, with their responsibility to check their facts, a detail no one else has to worry about, how do they compete with those who have no such restrictions?

These are legitimate concerns, which makes the way events unfolded Wednesday night a most interesting study in communications, and what we witnessed was a glimpse into the new face of breaking news journalism.

I saw a few things. There were unsubstantiated rumours, but Twitter wasn't rampant with them. But more than that I saw traditional journalists, the people whose names I was familiar with heavily engaged in Twitter, but careful to separate fact from rumour and working to verify. We learned to trust their tweets over others, as they worked to legitimize first hand accounts. It was a healthy combination of eyewitness information, verified through solid journalism, for the benefit of the public.

I saw responsibility. After police requested that social media refrain from giving away dangerous information such as where the police were, people complied, and any who didn't, quickly saw the peer pressure come to bear. This was social media, a so-called uncontrollable medium, policing itself.

The communications challenge of the police in a case like this is to maintain control of the message, so that social media doesn't run rampant, and police are acknowledged as the voice of authority. In this case, the RCMP did just that, and given the enormity of events, that is a considerable accomplishment.

As for that paywall thing with the Irving papers, I don't know what that was about, but there was a lot of criticism over Brunswick News failure to take it down. I don't know why they didn't. I'd like to hear an explanation, and I expect a lot of print reporters would too, as they would have liked to have been able to reach that broader audience. I am out of the country as I write this so maybe it has been explained and I missed it. But if there was one failing of traditional journalism this night, this was it. I don't know the technical side, but I do know the Boston Globe lifted theirs when the search was on for the Boston Marathon bombers.

One final though as I end this blog. This isn't about communication, but as someone whose firm has worked with RCMP on and off going back 20 years, our sincere condolences for their fallen brothers and an equally sincere congratulations and thank you for a job well done.

The force has had a lot of scandal to deal with over recent years and much of it deserved. But what happened in Moncton, for all its tragedy, served to remind all of us that the RCMP has much to be proud of. The bravery, humanity and professionalism we all witnessed showed our national police force at its best. That is the RCMP I was brought up to respect.

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