“Something is going on. I want to be precise. We don’t know what it is.” This is a quote from CNN anchor, Wolf Blitzer as he attempted to report on the manhunt for Boston Marathon bomber Dhokar Tsarnaev and was typical of the general chaos that surrounded the media coverage of both the bombings and the search for Tsarnaev on Friday 19th April.
On the afternoon of Monday April 15th, hours after the elite runners had finished the race hundreds of amateur runners were still being cheered on by large crowds as they approached the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon when two bombs exploded killing three people and seriously wounding many others. Just one minute later at 14:50 local time eyewitness Dan Lampariello posted a photo of the explosion taken from Boylston Street to his twitter account @Boston_to_a_T. The expected wall to wall media coverage ensued but the amount misreporting, false statements and false identifications across print, TV, Radio on-line and social media over the next four days culminating in the capture Dhokar Tsarnaev was surely unprecedented.
Errors across all forms of mainstream and new media
Social media sites like Reddit and 4Chan were blamed for much of the false information that abounded but there were also high profile mistakes from respected traditional media outlets like CNN, the Associated Press (AP) and the BBC. On Wednesday April 17th, CNN presenter John King announced live on air that a suspect had been arrested, citing credible local and federal sources. Fox news picked up the breaking news as did the Boston Globe, the BBC and the AP confirmed that a suspect was “in custody”, but the reports were completely false and forced the FBI to make a statement that no arrest had been made.
Perhaps the most high profile error of all came from tabloid newspaper the New York Post which not only erroneously declared 12 people dead following the explosions but also printed pictures of two innocent men carrying backpacks in the vicinity of the bombing under the headline ‘Bag Men’ implying that they could be the culprits.
‘Me first’ journalism
“So many media failures were driven by the ‘scoop’ mentality, a dangerous relic of the past”, said Mark Little, founder of social media news agency Storyful. “The most dangerous falsehoods about the Boston tragedy gained traction because they had the imprimatur of mainstream news organisations battling for a competitive edge.” Little describes the problem as ‘Me First’ journalism powered by vanity and self-importance whether it’s a TV reporter trying to scoop a story or an anonymous Twitter user rushing to name a suspect.
The ‘Society of Professional Journalists’ warned its members with a tweet saying: “As you report, remember: No one will remember who was “first” this week; we’ll remember who was wrong. (See CNN, AP, NY Post, et al.)”, but it seems this request mostly fell on deaf ears. It’s no longer as important to be the first with the facts, if only for the simple fact that it’s now virtually impossible given the number of eye-witness citizen reporters, but journalists are still struggling to shake of this mentality.
Reddit witch hunt
Still, social media was not blameless in the spread of misinformation. Reddit which operates a system in which readers’ votes push items up a ranking list attracted ‘citizen detectives’ aiming to find the bombers before the police could. A subreddit (essentially a posting board within reddit for users to post thoughts on a particular topic) was set up called ‘findbostonbombers’ which has since been removed from the site. Much of this involved crudely computer-drawn circles highlighting people in the marathon crowd who happened to be carrying a rucksack or, to a Reddit user’s eye, looked suspicious in some other way. It seemed that being non-white was often a cause for suspicion. One bag-toting presumed suspect, named “Blue Robe Guy” by users, was accused of such actions as “trying to look nonchalant”. Similar investigations were happening on 4chan, a pointedly anarchic site which began as a discussion point for Japanese animation.
It was innocent ‘suspects’ identified on Reddit whose pictures ended up on the front page of the New York Post. Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal was particularly outraged calling it “plain, old vigilantism with no place in our society.” Reddit also incorrectly named Sunil Triphathi an Indian-American student of Brown University who had been missing since March as the marathon bomber. The site’s users were congratulating themselves on Thursday evening April 18th for having beaten the police to the punch and by the time this information was proved to be incorrect Tripathi’s name had already been circulated in the press in India and Britain.
Such was the flow of misinformation that it prompted an unprecedented apology from Reddit general manager, Erik Martin. “We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Triphathi, as have various users and moderators,” Martin wrote. “We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure.” This was unusual as social media sites have in the past generally claimed that they are simply a medium and cannot be responsible for the postings of its users.
Twitter was the source that many looked to for news during the hectic manhunt for Dhokar Tsarnaev that effectively shut down the city of Boston on Friday April 19th. Following the overnight shoot-out between police and the Tsarnaev’s during which resulted in the death of elder brother Tamerlaen, public transport in the Boston area was suspended, businesses were closed and people were urged to stay in their homes. This left little for Bostonians to do but tune into the rolling television news coverage and watch their twitter feeds.
The perils of Twitter
Undoubtedly Twitter is one of the best tools for breaking-news delivery since the telegraph, but it is also a great tool for distributing lies, speculation, innuendo, hoaxes and every other form of inaccurate information. One of the problems with Twitter as a news-delivery vehicle, is that no one can agree on the proper behaviour during such events — or at least not enough people to make it worthwhile. When (if ever) is it too soon to speculate about the source of the attack or details like the number of wounded? Which sources are reliable and which aren’t when it comes to retweeting? Does everything have to be verified? Is it okay to retweet graphic videos and photos?
Deputy social media editor at Reuters, Matthew Keys was fired for his tweeting of inaccuracies from his personal account, whilst on suspension from the news agency. Although the reporter claims his dismissal was related to other events it still highlights the dangers of tweeting false rumours for journalists.
Verification has always been a key role of journalists. But when you publish a paper once a day or broadcast news twice a day, verification is a lot more straightforward. Rumours did not have the life that they have today. Even NPR’s Andy Carvin, well known for documenting breaking stories via Twitter, admitted that it wasn’t the media’s finest week. “We messed up, we didn’t always get the story right, we didn’t serve the public as well as we could have,” he said.
Carvin said the difference between Boston and other stories breaking on social media was the pure scale of information and sophisticated techniques from non-journalists such as live-tweeting of police scanner information but doesn’t think that this need necessarily overwhelm the media and distort coverage. There are many apps now available that allow people to listen to police scanners using nothing more than their mobile phones. These attracted huge crowds of well-intentioned twitter and reddit users to post what they were hearing live but ultimately caused public panic and the further spread of misinformation rather than helping the investigation.
Mob mentality outdoes wisdom of the crowd
The police-scanner and bomber manhunt incidents are examples of where ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ does not apply. They were classic examples where the collective group mentality allows the individual to abdicate personal responsibility. This was coined as ‘The bystander effect’ by Latane and Darley in 1968 after an experiment on Columbia University students. Students were asked to fill out a form some in a room alone and other in groups and the rooms were slowly filled with smoke. The lone students almost immediately noticed and reported the problem but the groups did not as they waited for someone else to acknowledge the problem and often let the rooms fill completely with thick smoke.
High profile breaking news events like those in Boston highlight the need for a new type of journalist but also one that can follow some traditional roles. Technology can play a role and tools are being developed to help journalists find and verify information online but ultimately the basics of good journalism still apply, validate your sources and create an interesting story around the information. As well as first hand reporters of breaking events there is a need for an eye in the sky narrator of events, who can quickly sift through the multitudes of sources and present an accurate picture. “As long as reporters are doing their job and others serve as aggregators, then I think we’ll be okay. But we have to get used to a world with information filters or else we will be hit with [an] information overload,” said Carvin.
Sites like Reddit do have their uses in solving problems like finding a camera lost in the ocean or identifying the make and model of a car involved in a hit and run based on only a photo of a headlight left at the scene. The Reddit Bureau of Investigation subreddit is dedicated to just these kinds of tasks. When it comes to identifying criminals our police force and judicial system follow strict rules to protect us as citizens and we’re probably better to let them do their job.
There was of course some excellent reporting from professional journalists in the mainstream media and even some posters on Reddit, but as the warning tweet said we’ll only remember the mistake. A post user DarrenGrey on a subreddit discussing the misreporting saga summed things up pretty well. “Unreliable crowd-sourced material plus the media’s ravenous desire for fresh information has proved a disgusting mix. Let’s never ever do this again.” Unfortunately behaviour like that seen on Reddit is very difficult to stop on-line and will of course happen again but this did feel like a defining event that could start a sea change in how the media report on unfolding events and treat social media sources.
Posted in: Social Journalism