The rush to be the first outlet to break all sorts of news in the wake of the Monday bombing of the Boston Marathon that killed three people and left many others gravely injured has done all sorts of damage to both individuals’ reputations and to our larger community this week. The New York Post reported that a man of Saudi origin was being questioned by law enforcement in a Boston hospital in the wake of the bombing—it turned out he was merely a survivor of the attack who had been tackled by a bystander who was suspicious of him for doing the rather sensible thing of running away from a scene of carnage. The Boston Globe and CNN mistakenly reported that a suspect or suspects in the bombing had been arrested, when, as became clear, no such arrests had taken place. The Post subsequently published on its front page a photo of two men at the marathon with the headline “Bag Men,” suggesting they were wanted in the bombing—it emerged that they were Salah Eddin Barhoum and Yassine Zaime, local teenagers who had hoped to run part of the Marathon route in the wake of the officially-registered runners. And social media sites, included Reddit, suggested that missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi was a suspect in the bombing, a misidentification amplified significantly after his name was overheard on a police scanner during the escalated manhunt for the real suspects last night, and one that conservative media sites who seized on his name have been slow to correct.
These are serious errors, and they’ll bring a range of consequences, from lawsuits to loss of reputation, for the outlets that reported them or that doubled down on them, seemingly having abandoned standards of journalism like having two sources to confirm a piece of information. And reporters like Pete Williams of NBC News, who have been judicious and often first to be correct about developments in the investigation, will hopefully be rewarded for their care and reliability. I’m disgusted by the damage that the Post, in particular, has done to the reputations and potential safety of innocent people. And I think that a general rush to claim scoops and exclusives is counterproductive for journalism in general. It’s possible to develop true scoops through deep, proprietary reporting that genuinely reveals new information to the public that other outlets could not offer up because they haven’t done the same research and interviews. But much of the information claimed as proprietary is nothing of the sort: it’s reproductions of official announcements or information that will shortly become widely available. They’re scoops only in the sense that one reporter has a better wifi connection at a press conference than the competition, or that someone is able to type up a headline faster than other people who have received a press release at the same time. Claiming scoops or exclusives under those circumstances is a cheap way to try to burnish a publication’s credibility that actually does the opposite.
But in this particular case, and to a very limited extent, I understand the rush to get information to readers or viewers that would reassure them that an ongoing terrorist or major criminal event is definitively over. The attack on the Boston Marathon was a horrible act of violence that both the individuals involved and the city where they were killed and wounded will take a long time to recover from. It would be an enormous relief to know that, as awful as the bombing was, it was a discrete event. If the Saudi man in the hospital was, in fact the bomber, or if the Tsarnaev brothers had been arrested earlier in the week, we would have known that Bostonians were safe from further injury. As someone who grew up in the Boston area and who still has family and friends there, I badly want to know we’re in the clear. And I know my anxiety is nothing compared to that of the people who are waiting on lockdown, and that my feelings are shared by people with no connection to the region at all.
I can’t understand a lot of the tactical decisions journalists have made in response to the desire for revolution, like, say, continuing to tweet things from police dispatches even after law enforcement has asked people to stop to avoid alerting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to information that could help him evade them. And I’ll never understand the racebaiting that encourages places like the Post to pick out people who fit their preferred profile of race and motivations for an attack like this that could be inspired by anything from extreme Islamist ideology to the kind of personal grievances grown to grand scale that fueled attacks like Columbine and the Beltway Sniper shootings. But I can very much understand wanting to be the outlet that gives people the profound relief that will come from knowing that the Tsarnaevs ability to do harm to the Boston area has run out. Being first with the news isn’t just a matter of winning the race. It’s about winning trust, and readers and viewers’ confidence in your abilities to give them the rare piece of news that can actually foster their sense of security.