Thursday, April 05, 2007


CASE STUDY: Josh Wilson of reviews coverage of cycle-car crash aftermath

MGP2006 alum Josh Wilson provides this analysis of the coverage of a
cycle-car crash in San Francisco that raises multiple questions about
the post-now, think-later nature of web journalism.

-- bill densmore

By Josh Wilson

Check out SFGate right now for a fascinating look at how both initial
newspaper coverage and Web 2.0 technologies can help shape perception
of a story.

At issue is a confrontation between cyclists riding in SF's monthly
Critical Mass, and a mother from the suburbs and her family in a
minivan who got caught behind the bike traffic. There was panic,
there was a bicyclist hit (how hard is in question), and then someone
broke the back window of her car.

The issue is particularly intriguing because there appears to have
been bad behavior on both sides of the issue, and the *style* of the
initial coverage appears to have been red meat for only the
inflammatory aspects of the story.

As a result, SFGate has had a banner day for traffic, but mostly, it
seems, because their initial coverage served brilliantly as flame-
and troll-bait in the Web 2.0 arena.

As the story plays out and the coverage evolves, the issue gets a lot
more nuanced, raising a lot of questions about the incident and how
it was covered.

It's obvious the issue touched a nerve over here. The Critical Mass
community (of which I am a member) has been galvanized into a lot of
important discussion of self-regulation. Amid all the outrage about
bicyclists behaving badly, there is also renewed outrage about police
dismissal of hit-and-run incidents against bicyclists. There are also
the usual concerns about source and witness grandstanding, which both
bicyclists and drivers involved in the incident have been accused of.

As an editor who used to work at SFGate, and who is also a bicyclist
with personal interest in how the story is covered, the compelling
question for me is:

-- How does a news outlet handle a story with hugely sensational (and
also culturally and politically significant) elements in a volatile
Web 2.0 environment? How do they *harvest the abundant traffic* of
such a story (769 blog comments!) and still do justice as a
responsible news outlet to the complexity of the story?

Following is an overview of the media coverage over time. What do you think?

1) The Gate's nwzchk blogger has a brief summary of the news-media
coverage. There are some sharply differing perspectives on the story:

2) The Chron's political reporters, Matier & Ross, led with the first
roundup of the incident. They're columnists with lots of pith and
POV, and their coverage reads in that spirit:

"Minivan's rude introduction to Critical Smash"

3) Their coverage ignited a HUGE flame war on the Gate's blog, most
of it quite bilious:

Critical Mass -- out of control?

4) Matier & Ross's initial column brought lots of criticism from the
left and pro-bike community, which SF Bay Guardian editor Steven
Jones encapsulates in his blog:

Did Critical Mass really go crazy?

5) SFGate harvested mucho traffic (no pun intended) from their teaser
blurbs on the front page yesterday, which were quite breathless ...
"terrorized family" was the most common usage. (I wish I had thought
to archive one of those blurbs, they were truly great examples of
certain style of headline.) In the heat of the moment, when the
window of their van was broken, I'm quite sure they WERE terrorized.
Nevertheless, their front page today is much more sober:

"Last Friday's confrontation in SF between Critical Mass
bicyclists and Redwood City driver Susan Ferrando -- with
daughters Shannon and Lauren -- that damaged her minivan,
has spurred has spurred another round of angry debate
about the rights of bicyclists and drivers."

6) The Chronicle noticed all the traffic to their blog, and sent some
reporters to an unrelated mayoral press conference to press the issue
with Gavin Newsom for their late-edition story yesterday:

Mayor vows 'a good look' at Critical Mass
Redwood City family's van damaged after being caught up in ride

7) The Chronicle's story today on the topic works a lot more detail
and perspective on the incident, which appears to be much more
nuanced than the original Matier & Ross column suggested:

Clash reignites road wars
Skirmish between driver, Critical Mass participants triggers
another round of debate about monthly ride

** Keep in mind that for every letter to the editor, there are a
hundred silent people out there w/ similar sentiments, or so the
conventional wisdom suggests. BUT, it's worth noting that much of the
reader furor about the incident did not emerge in formal letters to
the editor, but on the blogosphere -- on that initial SFGate blog
post, in fact. And, as with most troll-heavy blog topics, the bulk of
the outraged 700+ postings appear to be the same dozen or so bloggers
yelling at each other, full of the usual ad hominem attacks and such.

** All this provokes some interesting journalism-ethics questions of
how a "breaking" story should be played in a live medium such as the
Internet, which is where the real frenzy of the story was whipped up.

** There are also some interesting lessons one can learn about the
Web 2.0 medium, which seems to balance, not always evenly, between
"wisdom of the crowd" and "seething mob of pro and con flamers."

What does all this say for not only citizen journalism, but also how
professional news media makes use of their online communities?

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