It’s been less than 96 hours since a pair of homemade bombs—at least one of which was manufactured from a pressure cooker—detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people including a child have died, and scores were seriously injured.
An impatient, serve-me-now culture is now obsessed with getting a suspect—any suspect, it seems—in custody, right away.
We expect this from the Internet mob that instinctively sleuths with fanatical amateur attention any event of significant magnitude to warrant than their attention, and self-styled “experts” have pointed to suspects on various internet forums. It’s to be expected. People want closure.
Besides, playing amateur crime scene investigator is fun when you don’t have to deal with actual blood and bodies and shattered souls.
It’s a game.
We expect this from a lowest-common denominator like the Internet where no one knows you’re a dog, but the media has a responsibility to cut down on the noise, filter out the obvious chaff, and use basic and time-tested reporting techniques to ferret out the best available information. They have an obligation, as reporters and editors, to report only what they have good reason to suspect is true.
My, how the media has failed us. In an age where anyone and everyone can be a reporter, we’re watching the editorial process collapsing in front of our eyes.
One could be tempted to blame the technology, claiming the “fierce urgency of now,” the ubiquity of internet access, rise of social media, and other factors force the professional media to publish stories before the facts are complete, but I’d suggest to you that such a claim is the smallest and most brittle of fig leaves to hide behind. it is an excuse to put aside the difficult work of verification, and succumb to the base human desire to gossip.
No matter how robust the network, nor ubiquitous the technology, news outlets have one advantage that the man on the street will never have, and that is the institutional integrity and credibility of a professional news organization.
That credibility has been steadily squandered over the past generate of news media, and it is accelerating at an ever faster rate. It is more pronounced in recent years as reporters increasingly play at punditry, hoping to be celebrities, and their editors have merely shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “why not?”
Much of what make it to the front page and top of the broadcasts and in breaking news these days is broken news, full of editorializing, reporter bias, and unsubstantiated claims reported as fact. I can’t think of a single reputedly professional news organization of any size that this has not affected, and the string of abuses from the New York Post in their reporting of the Boston Marathon bombings is just one sad example.
Today’s travesty involves the running of a story that shows photos of two men that the newspaper claims to be possible “persons of interest” in the case, which they attribute to anonymous “investigators.”
What the Post doesn’t mention is that the “investigators” that singled out these suspects were internet denizens with no professional experience merely sorting through photos and pointing out people they thought looked suspicious. A law enforcement officer forwards a photo from a chatroom or message board to a peer, or mails it directly to the reporter, and suddenly we have reports claiming that these men are suspects.
Are they? Really?
The messageboard undermedia and the “professionals” have already blown several false suspect sightings, and the sheer number of different people being pointed to as “suspicious” suggests that most of those being called out had nothing at all to do with the bomb.
The Post itself jumped the shark and declared a 20-year-old Saudi victim of the blast was a person of interest, and then had to shamefully walk back their story.
CNN’s John King jumped on the air yesterday and made the unsupported claim that a suspect was is custody, only to have to walk the claim back in embarrassment a short time later, blaming his sources.
One popular “suspect” in some forums is a victim of the blast, clothes shredded, covered in blood, instinctively attempting to flee the carnage. Because he succumbed to “fight or flight” autonomic nervous system programming older than history itself, he’s now a bad guy? It’s absurd.
It’s all absurd. It doesn’t have to be.
Real newsroom editors aren’t merely human spell checkers. They have a critical role to play in reigning in the flights of fancy, or if you prefer, the exuberance of their reporters. They owe it to their customers, their audience, to hold information until it can be verified, and make certain that what is reported as news isn’t merely rumor coated in a hard candy shell of the reporter’s personal biases and beliefs.
As the news stories around the Boston Marathon bombing continue to come up woefully short of the facts, newsrooms need look no further than their own editors for the accelerating loss of public trust.
Update: “Suspect” in NY Post photo is a high school runner who has been cleared of involvement.
Second “suspect” is the runner’s coach.