Readers rush to blogs for latest info on avalanches
People wanted news quickly, but accuracy issues came up.
By Kelsey Daytonand Cara Froedge, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
January 14, 2009
When reports of two avalanches at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in late December first broke, thousands of people turned to their computers for immediate news.
Blogs such as JH Underground, The Snaz and Teton AT offered readers the first doses of information – accurate and inaccurate – and pictures. Readers began to stream in their comments, a practice that continued for days. Hours after the first bursts of information following both incidents, the Jackson Hole News&Guide posted stories on its Web site.
On Dec. 27, the paper reported on the Web on the slide that killed David Nodine and two days later about the one that hit the Bridger Restaurant and caught but did not kill resort employees.
Now, after the snow and clamor has settled, those behind the computer screen who covered the avalanche and those who watched the blog posts have garnered some perspective on how the events were reported.
Bloggers assert that the high-profile avalanches compelled readers to go to the Web for information, something they will continue to do because more breaking news will be covered with little time lag thanks to the Internet. At the same time, bloggers learned important lessons about reacting too quickly as news events unfold and vowed to strive for accuracy and speed.
One reader who went to Web for news on the Dec. 29 Headwall slide already had a strategy for sifting through rushing information. He and others said blogs are an add to coverage of events but do not replace outlets that offer verified and sourced reportage.
Rich Bloom, who heads the grassroots group South Park Neighbors, said he doesn’t typically include The Snaz and Teton AT in his daily news roundup but did during the December avalanches. His main source of information during the early hours of the incident was JH Underground.
“When you have an incident like this, people want the full story,” he said.
After the Headwall slid, the only places he could find stories initially were the blogs, though he did read the News&Guide and Planet Jackson Hole accounts soon after, he said. Bloom said he liked how the blogs streamed information in real time, something the local newspapers don’t often do. While his appetite for breaking news was quenched, Bloom also said he looked forward to more traditional accounts, such as the one that appeared in the News&Guide two days later.
“With that article,” Bloom said, Co-editor Angus Thuermer Jr. “was able to get information from spokespeople nobody else was able to get.”
Reader Trevor Bain, director of tennis at Teton Pines, said he had never perused locally generated blogs, but immediately after the avalanches the on-line sites became the quickest place for him to find information.
“It was such a big news item,” he said. “I was really thirsty for information.”
When he heard of the Dec. 27 avalanche that killed Nodine, Bain went to Teton AT, JH Underground and Planet Jackson Hole Online. He did the same when he heard about the Dec. 29 avalanche that hit the Bridger Restaurant.
On the blogs, Bain found mostly chatter and speculation, which he likened to gossiping with co-workers.
“There wasn’t any real information,” he said. “Nobody really knew exactly the extent of what happened.”
People now expect news faster, said Steve Whisenand, who taught a class called “Shred the Web” at the library to show people online resources for backcountry skiers.
Whisenand checks Teton AT regularly. When the avalanches hit, he went there and to the Teton Gravity Research forums. He found the forums filled with mostly rumor.
Whisenand felt he didn’t get the full story until the Jackson Hole Daily printed its story featuring interviews and a host of facts.
The way bloggers responded to the Headwall avalanche, however, changed the way the valley expects to get its news, one blogger said.
The days of waiting for the Jackson Hole Daily to publish a story or for the full account to come out in the Jackson Hole News&Guide on Wednesday have passed, he said.
“I think over the course of those three days, a lot of people in Jackson Hole realized they could get information more quickly on the Web than wait for the newspaper to come out the next day or several days later,” said Jim Stanford, founder of JH Underground.
No need to cite sources
Stanford said he collected the Headwall avalanche information he posted from someone who had been on the mountain. The freedom to post without citing a source enabled Stanford to get the information out to the public faster than anyone else, quelling panic by reporting that people were OK and no one was dead, he said.
He noted that he has scooped valley news media previously.
“I’ve been breaking news from time to time for more than two years,” he said.
He cited a post from Monday about the Jackson Hole Music Festival and another from earlier this year about Capt. Bob Morris changing his voter registration so he could cast a ballot for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.
“I don’t see what I do as competition, per se, for the newspaper,” said Stanford, who is currently working as a copy editor for the Jackson Hole Daily but was not at the time of the avalanches. “I look at what I do as a complement to the newspaper.”
What readers appreciated most, Stanford said, were the constant updates on JH Underground throughout the day.
Bain agreed. He regularly checked into the blogs to see if anything new had come to light. It wasn’t until the next day that his thirst for information was quenched, after he had had a chance to sift through all published reports and piece together the facts.
Afterward, Bain kept following the blogs, intrigued by the comments and differing opinions people continually posted.
“It was almost alive,” he said.
Blogs offer a chance to tell stories in a more dynamic way than newspapers, Stanford said. He writes the original posts, but readers have a chance to respond immediately, making the blog a forum for the events.
The News&Guide was slower than the blogs to publish a story about the avalanches on its Web site.
“We’re always going to be a little slower to post,” said Associate Publisher Kevin Olson.
That’s because when the News&Guide breaks stories on the Web site, they are written and edited to the same standard as what appears in the newspaper. The accuracy of information is confirmed and verified. A correction, even in an online post, is taken as seriously as a correction made in the hard-copy newspaper, Olson said.
The News&Guide Web story on the Nodine fatality reported the incorrect location of the slide. The Headwall avalanche story also contained information from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort that was incorrect.
Still, Olson said, bloggers were “running and gunning and shooting from the hip.”
On JH Underground, for example, Stanford reported he had heard Nodine was wearing a RECCO device used to find skiers trapped in avalanches, despite News&Guide reports saying he had a transceiver. Stanford later updated, saying a report from the sheriff’s office confirmed it was a transceiver.
Stanford said the report of the RECCO device was not confirmed, which is why he worded it saying he had “heard” Nodine had on the device. The post was up for more than a day before Stanford went in and used lines through the text to show readers the information had been changed.
Stanford said he did minor revisions to his blog to use more precise language, changing phrases such as “heavy artillery” to “explosives.”
“I received no complaints, no notice that anything I had written was inaccurate,” he said of the second slide report.
Bloggers made other mistakes as well, sometimes correcting them without acknowledging previous errors, sometimes letting readers set the record straight.
Stanford said readers should question any media outlet about the accuracy of its information, not just blogs.
“I’ve always said people have to be discerning readers,” he said. “People are free to judge for themselves the veracity of the information they find, whether it’s on the Web or in print.”
For his part, David Gonzales of The Snazz said Tuesday the story is already old news. Last week, he blogged about what he learned and what he might have done differently in breaking news on the avalanche.
Gonzales wrote he was upset by the resort’s seeming reluctance to provide information.
“So I did what’s so easy to do today – wrote a screed then hit ‘send,’ or in this case, ‘publish,’” he wrote.
The day after the Headwall avalanche, Gonzalez reported the resort suppressed photos because he heard a resort employee called a blogger to chew him out. In his January post, Gonzales said he doesn’t know if that was true and should have written he did not receive an answer after e-mailing a resort spokesperson.
“The local clamor for immediate hard information was unprecedented,” he wrote. “I wish that in response I’d been more scrupulous and not so quick to leap to conclusions. ... Personally, I need to [e]nsure that if I report current events, speed does not come at the cost of accuracy. Readers find the melding of news and opinion in blogs refreshing, since we all know that nothing going into somebody’s ears and out their fingers is ever going to be truly unbiased. But that doesn’t mean one can’t be thorough or accurate. I promise that in the future, when tackling news stories, I will do my best to be both.”
Bloggers think more people will turn again to the Internet when a major event happens in the valley.
Stanford said his blog received “tens of thousands” of hits after the slide, but he wouldn’t give specific numbers. The News&Guide saw increased traffic on its Web site in the days after the slide but won’t release numbers either.
The News&Guide will continue to assess what stories should be posted on the Web and what should go into print, Olson said.
“As a company, we want to be the one people turn to for late-breaking news,” he said.
Bain said if there was another big event, he’d look first at the blogs. They are one of the quickest ways to get information and obtain a feel for what people are thinking and feeling, he said.
Gonzales agreed. He wrote Jan. 6 that people expect immediate news in Jackson. Modern media, even on a small scale, can deliver, he wrote.
Yet what the blogs will report will depend on the writer’s whim.
“I report news that I find interesting or important,” Stanford said.
Said Gonzales: “A blog is constantly changing. And that’s one of the fun things about it.”
He expects he will cover more breaking news in the future but will also keep the variety of random photos and funny posts.
“It’s random,” he said. “And I think that’s what people enjoy.”
Bloom said he reads blogs and anything on the Internet with an added degree of skepticism, mainly because information shared on those Web sites is sometimes credited to anonymous individuals.
“That means I’ve got to have the information verified and try to figure out who that source is,” he said.
But Bloom reads all media reports with caution.
“We always have to think about the source,” he said. “I take everything, even in the News&Guide or the Wall Street Journal, with a grain of salt because it’s mostly correct, but sometimes people get some facts slightly wrong.”