It’s been a long, stressful and scary night in Boston and the surrounding areas, and it’s not over yet. In an unprecedented situation, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has declared city-wide shelter in place for all of Boston, effectively shutting everything down and ordering people to stay in their homes. We now know that the “man in the black hat” at the Boston Marathon was 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and he was killed overnight after a shootout with police. His brother (the “man in the white hat”) was 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and a massive manhunt is ongoing to track him down and bring him to justice.
That’s what we know, or at least what has been confirmed to us by authorities. But ever since the bombings happened Monday afternoon, we’ve been bombarded by a seemingly nonstop flow of misinformation and “bad sources” being relied upon by the media. At the same time, the armchair investigators on the internet have done nothing to help the situation, plastering the faces of innocent people to millions and proudly proclaiming they’ve “solved the case.”
The most glaring example on cable news came on Wednesday when CNN’s John King inexplicably made a total ass out of himself and his network, announcing prematurely that an arrest had been made after a “dark-skinned male” had been identified as a suspect. “I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things,” King said on air at the time.
No you don’t, Mr. King. If you wanted to be careful, you would have confirmed your information with multiple sources and made sure it was rock solid, instead of relying on a single “source within law enforcement.” On top of that, you wouldn’t have even bothered mentioning a “dark-skinned male” without giving a full description of what you were told. Doing this did nothing to educate the viewer or anybody in the area who may have been directly affected. All you did was prove without a shadow of a doubt you haven’t got a shred of journalistic integrity left in your career.
In print, the New York Post hit us with a bold front page headline proclaiming “BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon,” plastered over a photo showing two men talking to each other. The problem, of course, was that these two men were completely innocent and had nothing to do with the bombings. But the New York Post didn’t give a damn–they got their money headline and sold it to anybody who would bite. Who cares that it was premature, unverified, and could have ruined innocent lives, right? A quick buck trumps journalistic integrity any day!
Then of course we had the armchair detectives all over reddit and other social networks, absolutely certain that they had the entire scene mapped out and had pinpointed every suspect involved. One of the suspects was a young man who had been missing since last month, they said. They were sure of it–there was no way it wasn’t him! Except it wasn’t him, and it wasn’t any of the other “suspects” they pointed out either. This claim was spread so far that by the time the manhunt was on last night, supposedly “respected” journalists were reporting this young man’s name as the “man in the white hat.” Meanwhile, this young man (who I will not name since he IS NOT involved) has been missing since last month when he was supposedly suicidal and left home. If he’s alive, on the off chance he’s been paying attention to anything going on, do you honestly think being portrayed as a murderer and terrorist is going to do anything to help his self-esteem?
There are several other examples since the bombings as well, but these ones stick out as prime examples. So here we have our cable news, printed news and online “news” sources all infiltrated by bad information and misinformed “sources.” Don’t you think that, perhaps, this is exactly what terrorists would hope for, and possibly plan for? What if these guys built this into their plan, banking on spreading misinformation as part of their overall scheme to spread fear? All it would take is a few outlets eager to be the first with the “big break,” and uninterested in spending the extra time and effort to verify it. Move over to social media, and that’s even easier to manipulate and purposefully spread misinformation to suit your own agenda. Thousands upon thousands (if not millions) of armchair detectives salivating at the mouth to be led in the “right direction” and expand on that themselves. Just slip your musings into a forum and watch as they run with it if it’s even the slightest bit believable.
The bottom line is, it’s far better to have an unknown within a situation, instead of fabricating a false reality and then having to backtrack from that. In the age we live in now, people are always going to post their speculations online–that cannot be avoided. Responsible and ethical journalists listen to sources and supposed information, but don’t run with it unless it can be verified through several solid sources. The situation in Boston the past few days has proven that some people just don’t care, and when we allow that disregard for the truth to start spreading, it can become almost impossible to stop. And that’s exactly what our enemies love to see.
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