False Reports in Boston Bombing: an Ethical Dilemma

The Boston marathon bombing featured numerous reports of unconfirmed and false information, a growing and unethical trend among the journalism community

Political Cartoon of the Week depicting the instant but unconfirmed information reported during the Boston bombing incident (via About.com)

Political Cartoon of the Week depicting the instant misinformation reported during the Boston bombing incident (via About.com)

Story by: Jamie Soule

It is now well known that several of the news reports during the Boston bombing incident were false, and it seems that no one was surprised by that. What happened to dignified, accurate journalism?

Since the advent of ubiquitous internet access, smart phones and social media, our news has never been faster. However, with all that information comes more misinformation. Before the onset of these media accelerators, journalists were careful to report only the hard facts, with confirmation and attribution.

Bad Reporting

Reporting during the Boston bombings was “atrocious,” according to the Associate Professor and Chair of Minnesota State University’s mass media department, Mavis Richardson. “We need to stop and check the sources–at least one source,” she said. “And with looking at blogs, especially when you don’t know the writer and what their credentials are, how do you know that information is correct?”

Richardson said that reporting information that has gone unchecked by a credible source can cause unnecessary confusion, “creating fear where fear does not need to be at this point.”

Creating that fear can be detrimental to certain individuals or groups involved. For example, an innocent individual was reported as a suspect during the Boston bombing, and only hours later was found dead. Emily Boyd, associate professor of the sociology department at MSU, hesitantly referred to it as a “witch hunt.”

“This man was not a terrorist, and the media cycle, creating this atmosphere among the public obviously resulted in the loss of his life,” Boyd said. “To me, that is a very tangible representation of how people can get the fear level that’s elevated through the media, and the discussion online of who’s to blame can get really out of hand.”

The problem, then, is that media consumers are looking to place blame.

“It creates this folk devil in the mind of the consumer that there’s this group, this other, that we can attach all this evil to, that they are the cause of all the bad things happening in our culture,” Boyd said. Instead, that encourages us not to look at ourselves to see what we are doing to affect the situation, according to Boyd.

In response to the new age of instant information, Boyd said, “Being in the information age really changes our perception of what is frightening or what level should we be afraid.”

Screen shot of Huffinton Post video.

Screen shot of Huffington Post’s video compilation of false reports during the Boston bombing (Video provided below).

Big networks like CNN and Fox News, more so than smaller media outlets, are concentrated on getting the information out first, regardless of whether it is true. Richardson cited CNN as being worse than Fox, in this case, as the outlet pulled various information from social media sites like Twitter and then later reporting that the information was incorrect.

“Granted, it’s broadcast. It’s media,” Richardson said. “But do you want it out there?”

Richardson agreed that it is important to keep misinformation, rumors in particular, out of the media reports. “The public is willing to wait a little bit so that you can check it out because we do want correct information,” she said.

Attribution is Important

The best way to go about it, according to Richardson, is to attribute everything to a source. If it is necessary to put the information out there while it is still unconfirmed, then it must be identified as a rumor. Attributing the information to a source, whether it be another media outlet, is very important.

“Journalists share information in a crisis,” Richardson said. “So it is very important, I think, that you identify that you are still working on [getting confirmation] and if it is correct, I would identify a media source as one of your sources in addition to.”

It seems that various types of crises, including natural disasters and terrorism, are increasing in occurrence these days, or at least our coverage of them. That is all the more reason to be prepared and have a plan in place for reporting on those crisis situations, Richardson said.

“Because the bombings, the terrorism, national security, all of this is so much a part of our everyday life now, we should have a plan in place,” Richardson said. “When you’re in the middle of something like this, sometimes your common sense kind of flies out the window a little bit.”

Richardson explained that when a journalist is pressured under these circumstances, it becomes more difficult to find confirmed information because of all the rumors amid the chaos. She said it is important to keep a specific list of sources to go to in a crisis and to be organized in getting the information put together while avoiding the various rumors circulating in other media outlets.

On the other hand, Boyd was not entirely sure that reporting the rumors as such is enough.

“The way that we flip, the way that we pick up information, we may not hear those disclaimers,” she said. “So, it is really important for us to remember to be media savvy ourselves and not just depend on them to give us those cues, but to already have that filter.”

Nonstop Coverage

The bad reporting didn’t stop with Monday’s bombings. In fact, it continued through Friday with the police chasing the suspect. Richardson acknowledged that “Big Brother is watching” as media outlets were able to use the satellite feature of Google Maps to find the boat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding in. Not only was this arguable infringement of privacy alarming to Richardson, but also the fact that media outlets reported on the incident nonstop for several hours.

“They could have broken in at any time and said that police have him and then come back to live coverage,” Richardson suggested. “But we went for more than two hours with absolutely no information.”

Richardson added that she thought this continuous coverage without new information may have added to more fear in the residential area. Instead of reporting the way they did, Richardson suggested “a little breaking news, occasionally, instead of doing the OJ Simpson chase—an hour and a half of watching a white Bronco go down the highway. Plan your coverage; you don’t have to be the first to break it,” she said.

Boyd also agreed that the 24-hour coverage can create more undue fear in the community. The problem is that the media outlets continue to talk about the event without new information, basically restating what has already been stated and not answering any questions or concerns of the public.

“I think that can lead to more tension to the media consumer, because there is all this unresolved fear out there,” Boyd said.

To see some of the most common mistakes reported during the Boston bombing, check out this compilation by the Huffington Post:

Social Media Fiends

Social media was prevalent in the Boston bombings coverage. Richardson was not surprised with the magnitude of social media influence on this incident. Richardson said, “It really came to the point this time showing me how pervasive social media is. This is the first time where I really see it’s more the ordinary citizen, for example, contributing to media.”

Personally, I happened to be on my Tweet Deck when the Boston bombing occurred and noticed various initial reports through my following. So I searched the hashtag #Bostonmarathon. It was dizzying, to say the least. The tweets flashed before my eyes: 60 or more tweets per second. I had to remove the hashtag, as it was so distracting and difficult to sort through.

Thousands of tweets circulated the internet that day and continued through the week, and law enforcement used this to its advantage in identifying and catching the two suspects. According to Richardson, “It definitely was aiding law enforcement, because we had all these different pictures and videos from various angles and they were able to identify two of them.”

However, Richardson had mixed feelings about the use of social media and added, “But then again, it hurts when you’ve got misinformation—rumors that are going around and media are picking up on it without checking it and other people passing it around without checking the source or attributing it to a source.” She said that simply attributing the various information to a source could have put a stop to some of the rumors that were going around as well as “putting it into context.”

Boyd had her own positive experience with social media, finding out within ten minutes of the bombing that one of her friends who was running in the race was safe, thanks to a posting on Facebook.

“That’s kind of amazing, so I can marvel at that, and that’s a really positive part about social media,” Boyd said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh god, here we go again’—that was my second reaction.”

So what is in our future with our social media relationship and citizen journalism? Well, expect that Twitter and the like will be there to deliver the crisis minute-by-minute.

“Social media will be there for the next one—I can guarantee that,” Richardson said. “Is it going to be the same chaos? We’ll see. We’ll see if we learn from the mistakes of this particular incident.”

What is FALSE

Among the many unconfirmed and false reports, here are the main myths:

  • Third bombing at JFK Library related
  • 12 people were killed by the explosions
  • 5 other bomb packages found
  • Cell phone service was shut down to prevent detonation of other bombs
  • Saudi Arabian suspect in custody the day of the bombings
  • Little girl among the 3 dead
  • Zooey Deschanel of The New Girl identified as suspect in bombing

What is TRUE

At this point, the following information has been confirmed:

Photo of Boston boming victims Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Sean Collier and Lu Lingzi

Victims of Boston boming incident. Top left: Krystle Campbell, Top Right: Martin Richard, Bottom Left: Sean Collier, Bottom Right: Lu Lingzi (via Philly.com)

  • 3 people died in Monday’s bombings (Martin Richard, 8; Lu Lingzi, 23; Krystle Campbell, 29)
  • 264 people were injured
  • MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, 26, shot down by suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
  • 2 nationalized Americans from Chechnya planted 2 bombs in backpacks on Boylston Street during the Boston marathon
  • Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, is dead after being wounded in gunfire exchange with police
  • Other suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is charged with using weapons of mass destruction and faces the death penalty

The Boston bombing presents us with a great example of what not to do when reporting on a crisis. Journalists need to keep in mind their fundamental duty: Get the facts.

Of course, it is also important to remember that it is natural for media consumers to be interested and concerned about situations like the Boston bombing.

“We all are interested, and you can’t change that when something like this happens,” Boyd said. “But just be a little bit cautious in accepting all this information as fact. Accept that this is what they’re telling us, but wait a minute to really draw our conclusions. It takes a while to have a fair and just investigation of these things.”


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