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Editorial: Modern media

In his novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens begins with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ...”

Dickens was writing about the French Revolution, but he could have been referring to today’s revolution in communication.

Through incredible innovation, we have a world now where information is available at our fingertips. With a tap on a screen we receive news, invitations, maps, recommendations. A few taps on a keyboard and we’re able to tell others what we’re thinking, feeling, seeing ... all un-tethered by the wires or constraints that were attached to previous technology.

And at such speed!

This revolution has unleashed a freedom in expression and speech unlike anything ever seen in history. Anyone can post an opinion, anyone can express themselves via a blog. Getting one’s opinion out in the public has never been easier, especially through social networks. Twitter, for example, describes itself as “... a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting. Simply find the accounts you find most compelling and follow the conversations.”

Twitter and Facebook are said to have had a significant role in the Egyptian revolution that shook Hosni Mubarak from his office, as well as in other Middle Eastern countries. Clearly, all of this “real time” communication is a force that can influence and shape events in ways we are just beginning to see and understand.

But this revolution comes with a dark side as well.

The constant stream of information comes at the public unfiltered, a jumble of fact and fiction. It can be based upon reporting by professionals as well as people who see themselves as citizen journalists as well as those who operate with bias aforethought. It’s the boots on the ground at some event, like the bombings at the Boston Marathon, as well as the soapbox for those who have a conspiracy theory about events or people.

And it’s also a conduit for faceless scammers and crooks to reach out to take advantage of the unsuspecting. The day after the bombing, for example, phoney emails offering a new video of the attack began to pop up on computers around the country ... but were quickly labeled as attempts to spread viruses.

Wednesday was a day where the ability to quickly spread information via the Internet and social networks proved its worth ... as can be seen with a report that a suspect had been identified.

But without any check on veracity, this quickly evolved to “news” that a suspect had been taken into custody and was headed to the federal courthouse in Boston. That prompted the media to send crews to the courthouse to try to get a glimpse of the person allegedly involved.

In the rush to air the latest information, many of those who should be the gatekeepers — television stations, the Boston Globe’s website and other media outlets — tossed caution to the wind and began to report on these events.

As it turned out, there was no arrest, no suspect in custody. However, there was an opportunity for someone to make a bomb threat to the courthouse, forcing the building to be evacuated.

This revolution of communication and information is far-reaching in its impact on our lives.

But with such power comes responsibility. Some of that is now tied to the reader or viewer, who must function as their own editor, constantly on guard for bad information.

But the rest is on those who hastily post the latest rumor without take the few moments necessary to make absolutely sure it’s correct.

The new communications offer great benefits, but also carry the seeds of great harm.

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