Looking for a solution to mounting media confusion and misinformation

April 26, 2013

One of the driving principles in the live and late-breaking world of TV news is to just keep moving on. Don’t dwell too long on yesterday’s mistakes, or you’ll miss today’s big story.

But the mistakes made by social media and cable TV after the Boston Marathon bombings have continued reverberating — culminating, perhaps, in the discovery last week of the body of a young man falsely accused of being a suspect. We saw similar patterns after the Newtown shooting, and we need to look at this trend before the media get any further out of control.

After watching CNN go from reporting false information to losing its nerve and offering almost no information by the time the second bombing suspect was captured, it was clear to me that we had reached a moment of transition away from the dominance of cable TV as the go-to place on breaking stories. One question is whether there’s a way for cable to adapt to the changing media environment and stay in the game as one of the power players.

But the most pressing reason for exploring media performance in Boston is the kind of damage that has once again been inflicted on the innocent in the name of instant information. The shift in media power and the damage being done each time our shaky information ecosystem gets stressed are related.

Much has been said and written about Rupert Murdoch’s “New York Post” putting the images of two innocent young men on the cover of the tabloid in such a way that readers might think they were responsible for the bombs in Boston. And then, once it was clear that they weren’t the bombers, Murdoch and his editor-in-chief, Col Allen, refused to apologize. But what do you expect from Murdoch and his kind of journalism anyway?

Even more has been written and said about CNN’s John King reporting that a suspect had been arrested when, in fact, one hadn’t at the time. Compounding the error exponentially, King described the suspect as “dark-skinned.” King accepted responsibility for his mistakes on Twitter and in an interview with Washington radio station WTOP last week.

Fox News also reported the arrest — as did AP and the Boston Globe. All cited sources just as King and CNN did. But we have no way of further checking, because the sources were all unnamed, which further erodes credibility and confuses those looking for information they can trust.

But by far the most troubling and least discussed aspect of bad Boston coverage is what happened on reddit where crowd-sourcing turned to a witch hunt with users deciding they were going to play at being detectives by sharing their uninformed thoughts on who was responsible for the bombing.

The online lynch mob fingered several innocent people based on perceived similarities to suspects shown in photos released by the FBI. One of the innocents was Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who had gone missing in March. Tripathi was seen by some reddit users to resemble Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was captured by police.

The parents of Tripathi were so distressed by what was being said on reddit that they issued a statement insisting on the innocence of their son.

Think of that: The parents aren’t suffering enough because their son is missing. Now, they have fools on reddit saying he’s a killer.

Tripathi’s body was found Tuesday.

Reddit is among the sites built on user-generated content — a business model favored over journalism sites where you actually have to pay media workers who are trained to gather and process information.

Erik Martin, reddit’s general manager, posted an apology on the site Tuesday.

“… Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties,” Martin wrote. “The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened.”

How does he know “millions of people on reddit round the world deeply regret” it? And what is “noble” about posting such speculation anyway?

“We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Tripathi, as have various users and moderators,” Martin continued. “We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure… Especially when the stakes are high we must strive to show good judgement (sic) and solidarity.”

There’s no place for the kind of rampant speculation reddit engaged in. But for journalists, there may be ways to responsibly explore the deluge of sometimes-unverified information that comes out of a breaking-news event.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.