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Guest column: ‘Nano news’ & why you should care.

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Read more from Gerald Baron at Crisisblogger

My friend Gerald Baron is very good at figuring out what new things mean and the impact on those in emergency management. We’ve been living with “nano news” for a while but probably didn’t realize what it was. Essentially it’s instant news without the editing, processing and context that journalists traditionally provided. Or, as Gerald has written, “realtime information sharing from the source–from the scene, the front-lines or by real time sharing of police scanners and the like”. The aps and websites broadcasting public safety radio traffic that we’ve become familiar with are part of what fuels “nano news”.

What bothers me greatly is that too often these days during breaking news coverage, traditional news media puts unconfirmed scanner information and other unconfimed reports (AKA rumors) on the air and/or on the web. We once counted on reporting by these organizations to be an important source of reliable information. With many of the mistakes made during the Boston Marathon news coverage and other significant events in recent years, some of the major news organizations are becoming no more valuable as a source of reliable information than the neighborhood gossip on Facebook or Twitter. More reason an “official” flow of information on social media platforms needs to be established in the very early stages of an incident.

As the Boston Marathon bombings proved, “nano news” can have a direct impact on the management of an incident. Here’s Gerald’s view as orginally posted in his blog Crisisblogger (a site you will want to read regularly).

In a recent keynote presentation I made to an emergency management conference and in a post on Crisis Comm over at emergencymgmt.com I used the term “nano news.” Since it has been referenced lately by others I thought some further thoughts here might be worthwhile.

Webster defines “news” as ” a report of recent events.” “Nano” is one billionth of a second. Nano has come to refer to anything very small. So what is very small news?

In the Boston bombing manhunt one new feature of reporting news came to the wider public attention. This was the quite wide-spread use of police scanner apps, websites like “broadcastify” and linking police scanners to the internet through Ustream. What all of these methods do is the same: they capture the realtime police communications as the responders are doing their job. In this case, hunting down and capturing the remaining suspect in the Marathon bombing.

News media using police scanners to gather information is nothing new. And of course, there are those, some might call them geeks, who make a hobby of listening in on police radios. What is new is the use of the internet and social media such as Reddit, 4chan and Ustream to share that real time police activity with the rest of the world. This is a game changer in several respects.

One, it takes “instant news” to a whole new level. This is getting as close as it seems possible to being one of the eyewitnesses on the scene, except you can be on the other side of the globe. How do you get faster than instant? Nano, I guess.

Second, it is “small news.” It comes in the tiniest bits and pieces. For example, the Redditor who was following a police scanner app reported during his or her continual stream of reports from the police scanner that “we have movement, arm is moving.” This was one of the first indications to the police and simultaneously to the world that the suspect was alive under the tarp covering the boat. A tiny bit of information, but yet so significant to those “on the scene” eagerly watching events unfold.

Third, it is fully unfiltered, unchecked and unreliable. It’s long been said that the first reports about almost anything are bound to be wrong. But when those first reports are not about what HAS happened, but what IS happening, it seems almost more certain they will be wrong. We saw that to tragic effect in the Boston situation, where a police scanner referencing the name of a possible suspect was picked up and distributed widely throughout the internet. One women’s organization with 300,000 Facebook likes put that name out and apologized when it turned out to be a missing student who was found dead a few days later. The apology included the explanation “I’m not a journalist,” as if that excused the distribution of a false report to hundreds of thousands. What the new “nano news” reporters seem to not understand is that they are “journalists” or “broadcasters” in the sense that what they say can and often is distributed to thousands or even millions and they bear some responsibility when the false information ends up impacting response activity or the lives of those involved.

Fourth, related to the above, information true and false can be harmful. It can hurt police or response operations. It can compromise public safety. It can cause untold damage to reputations and cause extreme emotional pain. Because of this, no doubt the emergence of “nano news” will prompt the further use of encrypted radios, but I would guess may also spur legislation. Legislation is often a recourse when people act irresponsibly and most “5-0 Scan kids” as I call them (after the popular app 5-0 Scan) would not consider it irresponsible to simply relay what is on the police scanner. But it can be and often is. When they use their computer to live video a police scanner and share that on Ustream they would not think of the harm they could be causing. But they should.

We have left an era of “processed news.” That is information that is gathered, vetted, verified, compressed, packaged and distributed to a waiting audience. The audience has become the broadcaster and those charged with vetting, approving and packaging are struggling mightily to figure out how to be responsible when they can’t possibly beat the police scanners or the on-the-scene eyewitnesses sharing what they observe on Twitter. As they get closer to nano news themselves, mistakes with potentially huge consequences are inevitable. But, when it is desperately important to us, we can accept those errors are part of the price we pay for getting what we want right now.

Nano news is here to stay. For good and ill.


Just after writing this I read this excellent post by Bill Salvin about using Twitter in the first hour after an incident. He’s right on the money and since Twitter largely created the nano news phenomenon, it is essential that crisis communicators follow Bill’s advice.

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