Balancing speed and accuracy in news rush
ONE of the great ironies of the information age is learning to deal with information scarcity amid the white noise of information overload.
As the saga of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 unfolded, that was one of the things that stood out as both the mainstream and online media offered blanket coverage.
The beleaguered MAS has come under fire for its slow response to its plane going missing over the South China Sea early on Saturday morning.
There has been enough information, or rather, lack thereof, in the hours following the first news break to make it evident that the airline had little idea what happened to MH370.
As consumers of news, we are all greedy for any scrap of a big story that comes our way. And, with the proliferation of social media and online news portals, this hunger for information means that the chances of rumours spreading multiply exponentially.
One of the first rumours that spread like wildfire on social media at about 10am on Saturday was that the plane had "safely landed". A person had posted this on social media, saying he "got news from a friend".
Soon after, the talk was that the plane had landed in Vietnam. This was soon overtaken by rumours of an emergency landing in Nanning, in southern China.
No doubt, social media can break news faster than the traditional media, given that everyone armed with a smartphone can tweet or post updates on Facebook. This ability has proven useful in times of catastrophe.
I was in Boston last year at the time of the marathon bombing incident. Like many others, I turned to social media for the latest information, trawling the platform for hashtags.
The draw was the immediacy of the updates. But those soundbites can sometimes be unverified.
In the chaotic hours immediately after the Boston bombs went off, there were tweets about unexploded devices being found in other busy city areas.
Luckily, there was no mass panic. But those tweets, plausible as they sounded, could have triggered negative reactions that could have caused more harm.
The difficulty lies in assessing the validity of the information that travels at light speed in the ether. This is where the traditional media still has a thin winning edge over the new media.
On Saturday, when the rumours about MH370 took on a life of their own, The Straits Times had the advantage of bureaus in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, where reporters were scrambling to verify the online rumours with sources on the ground.
With reporters attending the MAS press conference in Kuala Lumpur and pumping industry contacts in Singapore and Indochina for information, editors made the call to wait for verification rather than run with the rumours. That, as it turned out, was a wise decision.
But it also means that there is a perceived "time lag" in traditional media reporting, as reporters strive to obtain the most accurate information available.
Accuracy should be the governing principle. But that also means that readers have to be satisfied on occasion with slower scraps of information if they really do want the correct picture.
It is an inevitable trade-off which everyone involved in the news cycle, from newsmakers to the media to consumers, has to acknowledge.
It is not just traditional news organisations that have to tread that delicate balance between offering speed and accuracy, and feeding the news mill.
Corporations also now have to deal with getting ahead of the information curve. MAS has learnt, to its cost, that providing no information will cause an online backlash that might hurt it worse than if it had come clean much earlier about how little it knew about what had happened to MH370.
Like nature, the online world abhors an information vacuum. And, if no information is forthcoming from the source, in this case, MAS, then the online world and news media will fill it with speculation and theory.
Already, there have been conspiracy theories surfacing online about terrorism, bolstered by the discovery that two passengers boarded the plane with identity credentials from stolen passports.
No doubt, more theories will emerge in the days to follow as the authorities continue their grim search for the plane.
Even if they do find the wreckage, there will be the inevitable investigation into what caused a plane to fall out of the sky in clear conditions. And that means a longer wait for the truth about what happened to MH370.