What's the latest on the bombing? Is it three dead? Or fifteen? Or thirty-three?
It depends on which paper or website you're reading. If you're following Twitter or the main news sites, the answer is still three – one of them Martin Richard, an eight-year-old boy who had run to hug his father as he completed the Boston marathon.
If you are concerned about Syria, the answer is that 15 are known to have died in car bombings in Damascus on Monday last week. We still know little about the victims.
If you look a little further south to Iraq, the answer is that at least 33 are thought to have been killed in car bombings in Kirkuk and Baghdad at about the same time as the Boston blasts yesterday. Again, there is little information about the victims.
Why, then, the heavy emphasis on Boston – especially as statistics suggest that around 80 Americans will have died of gunshot wounds yesterday? Is it somehow a greater atrocity? And if not, why is it a bigger news story?
These are, of course, rhetorical questions. Bombings in America are rare, in the Middle East they are a regular occurrence. We know that the attacks in Syria and Iraq were politically motivated and carefully targeted. We're all still fretting about the who, what and why of Boston. Al Qaeda? A lone maniac? Someone somehow linked to the threat from North Korea? A gun fanatic angered beyond all sense by suggestions of curbs after the Sandy Hook shootings? (The last stretch of the race was dedicated to the 26 killed by Adam Lanza at a Connecticut school in December.) Was it all Obama's fault – or that of the Republicans? Everyone was playing the blame game, but no one really knew anything.
Many years ago, a journalist friend came up with an uncomfortable equation of newsworthiness:
1 British child = 2 British adults = 10 French or Germans = 50 Australians = 100 Indians = 500 Chinese = 500,000 Biafrans.
It's horrible and in these more sensitive days, you would hope that any vestige of truth in the formula would have gone. But it hasn't quite, has it? What is missing from this numbers game is the circumstance: how rare is the event, how great the suffering, how near are the cameras?
Terrorists of all colours, shapes and sizes, are smart cookies. They know when and how to maximise impact and when to hold back. The finishing line of the Boston marathon was a master stroke, for not only were there huge crowds, tv cameras and reporters, there were also trained first-aiders, medical equipment and wheelchairs. These bombs were relatively small ball-bearing devices and they were detonated long after the elite athletes and the main body of runners had completed the race. This does not seem to be the work of someone determined to cause maximum death and destruction.
There will be consternation here with the London marathon just round the corner, and that was naturally the focus of British coverage on the web early yesterday. The bombing itself was the splash in all the main papers yesterday morning, but it had a tough job to compete with the prequels of Mrs Thatcher's funeral today.
Up until a few years ago, the Boston story would definitely have held sway on day two. But now we are in the digital era, the rules are changing. Where an editor would scoff at a story because it had been on the Today programme, he or she will now say 'but it's been on the web all day'. Does the fact that the subject is the top trend on Twitter make it more – or less – newsworthy for a traditional print paper?
And how far does the web and Twitter influence our difficult choices about what to show and what to withhold? There used to be a cardinal rule that you did not run pictures of dead people; then it suddenly became OK if they were an unidentified, and then if they were famous or notorious, like Saddam Hussein.
Newspapers' websites show no restraint in publishing photographs of blood-caked children or of people with legs missing, their faces fully visible and identifiable. It can be only a matter of time before the rules are loosened still further for print. Has everyone forgotten that there were reasons for restraint: that people deserve dignity in injury and death and the practical stricture that children should be able to pick up a paper without being frightened.
Another fear is that Twitter and the web will lead to a more cavalier attitude to what is fact and what is rumour, hearsay and speculation. The Slate website anticipated yesterday that people would seek to make capital – political or financial – from the disaster and published what it described as a journalist's guide to tweeting during a crisis. JournalismUK has also put up a miniguide under the URL tweetresponsibly.net.
Reporters on breaking stories, desperate to learn the most details in the least possible time, have to clutch at every nugget. And no matter how assiduous they are in assaying their find, they will often have been proved wrong by the time the paper appears the next day. We have never learnt the lesson of not putting death tolls in the splash headlines – and they are always, always, always wrong. Yesterday morning there were two dead in Boston; now there are three. With luck that will be the final figure, but with seventeen critically ill, who could guarantee it?
Yesterday tens of thousands of people couldn't resist tapping 'OMG, horror in Boston' into their mobiles, while celebs felt it essential to tweet to show fans their compassionate side – and burnish their image. Roll up Arnold Schwarzenegger, Taylor Swift, Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe, Oprah Winfrey, Justin Timberlake, Mark Wahlberg. We all just NEED to know that you are praying for the people of Boston.
Then came the cyber-ambulance chasers. Internet entrepreneurs, self-publicists, bloggers (yes, I know, pots and kettles), all went haring off – and so did the spivs and spammers. Within hours, fake Facebook and Twitter accounts had been set up, promising donations to fake charities in exchange for 'likes'. They even had pictures of little girls supposedly running in the race (do they let primary school children run in marathons?) who were said to have been killed.
This post is really a series of questions, so here are two more to finish: how can we make sure that we maintain standards of journalism in our mainstream media when there are so many competing sources of information and little time to sort the wheat from the chaff?
And how can we make sure that the Twitter voices that must be heard are not drowned out by the cacophony of witterers?