Contempt, disgust, and grief were logical reactions to the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, but panic and chronic confusion didn’t have to be. In the days between that horrific act and the killing of one suspect and capture of the other, the nation was gripped by a hysteria that only complicated the investigation — and made the situation more terrifying. This was stoked in large part by a news media that lunged at shadows until an already shaken public had no clue what to believe. To counter the uncertainty after the bombings, we sought truth — from TV, Twitter, and information-sharing sites like Reddit. We didn’t find much. As those outlets competed, they only outdid each other in terms of inaccuracy.
CNN stumbled more than most, with chief national correspondent John King delivering two ”scoops” from confidential sources that turned into embarrassing faceplants: first, on April 17, that authorities were seeking a ”dark-skinned male,” and then an erroneous claim later that a suspect was in custody. At least there King wasn’t alone, with Fox News and the venerable AP among those making the same bogus reports. The FBI even released a statement that day pleading with the media to be more careful: ”Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”
The New York Post — no surprise — didn’t raise the bar. First it reported that 12 people had died in the bombings, instead of the three who actually lost their lives, then the tabloid claimed a Saudi man was a suspect, even though Boston police repeatedly said this was false. On April 18, before the FBI released images of the actual suspects, the Post committed its most shameful mistake, publishing the front-page headline ”BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon” over an image of two guys in tracksuits watching the marathon. With a nation hurt, angry, and seeking justice, the Post put two innocent men in jeopardy from vigilantes.
When the FBI released real surveillance photos of the alleged bombers, Reddit users also ”identified” a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, as Suspect No. 2, due to similarities in their facial structure. In fact, Tripathi was never under investigation. During the Thursday firefight and chase with the actual suspects, however, his name was still being tweeted and bandied about on Reddit. Many across the country went to bed that night believing he was a terrorist.
As Friday, April 19, dawned, all of Boston went into lockdown with Suspect No. 1, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, dead and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, 19, at large. Their uncle Ruslan Tsarni gave a vitriolic press conference outside his Maryland home, dispelling the notion that his nephews were any kind of masterminds. Instead, he believed that the two terrorists were lashing out because they couldn’t fit in. What motivated them? ”Being losers!” Tsarni spat.
We’ve seen from previous mass killings that it doesn’t take any brains or courage to cause pain. These cowards dropped bombs beside groups of kids and friendly spectators, then hurried away. The three innocent lives they claimed — and the nightmarish injuries they caused to more than 170 — deserved national mourning. But the uncertainty that followed could have been far less agonizing. This was a landmark moment when both old and new media went scrambling after the same suspects with everything they had. It would have been nice if the old-fashioned reporters, who want us to believe in the added value of judgment and expertise, hadn’t acted like beginners.