Toronto explosions reveal weakness in breaking news coverage

Toronto Propane ExplosionHamilton Spectator senior city reporter Bill Dunphy takes a hard look at how the massive propane explosions recently in Toronto were
covered by both the major outlets and by local blogs and citizens on
his Ideas Factory blog

Overall, he says, the citizen journalists did a better job of getting news out faster, with more images and better video. But, he adds, they also made more mistakes and had a “high noise to signal ratio” while mainstream media were “slow off the mark and while they depended on the citizen journalists, they failed to make the most of the possibilities that material offered.”

A series of explosions at a propane factory hit a Toronto neighbourhood in the wee hours of August 10. News outlets struggled to cover the event in a timely and comprehensive way and Dunphy says the resulting coverage reveals weaknesses in how newspapers deal with breaking news in today’s web-based world.

He examined the four dailies (The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Toronto Star, and the Toronto Sun) and two major blogs (Blog.TO and Torontoist).

Take a look through Dunphy’s blog for his full coverage comparison, but here’s a couple of examples of his conclusions:

  • The Globe “seemed entirely asleep at the switch, relying entirely on Canadian Press.”
  • The Post‘s coverage was “very smart and simple” and the paper got out ahead of the story well with its Toronto blog, but “they failed to take the story beyond the exciting, moment to moment breathless coverage.”
  • BlogTO did “a darn good job of covering breaking news with no resources but the web and your readers at your disposal.”

Overall, Dunphy says the best images and video came from citizens and he wonders where the pros were as the story progressed. As for the overall breaking news coverage, he writes:

Nobody succeeded in blending together professional journalism with the best their fellow citizens had to offer. Nobody. The best either covered breaking news like they always do (The Star) with a few sprinkles of web pixie dust (adding the YouTube videos); or they did a great blog job for a while (The National Post), harvesting the best the web — and it’s citizens — had to offer, without ever doing the real journalism that sifts the wheat from the chaffe and gives us a strong story rich with facts, context, analysis, and colour.

After having had some time to reflect, Dunphy then wrote a second blog post on the issue, this time clarifying what he’d learned from examining the coverage and outlining steps news outlets should take when covering breaking news for the Web.  

Overall, he writes:

Speed of delivery ain’t the biggest change the web brings to the news game – duration is.The story lives in time, and your job changes as you move further away in time from the event.

(Photo by MSVG, reprinted under Creative Commons License)