In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, witnesses described the chaos at the finish line, where thousands of bystanders fled away from the blasts as first responders did the opposite—running toward the smoke and destruction with brave determination. Several people compared the police and medics to salmon swimming upstream, against the tide of the crowds. This is what public service and leadership looks like—and it is a lesson the news media would be wise to learn.
It’s trendy to praise the democratization of media via the Internet as harnessing “the wisdom of crowds.” But this time, the crowds were dumb. Clouded by biases, CSI-wannabes deluged the Internet with pictures from the marathon marked up with theories about suspects. Those theories were too often based on pernicious assumptions about race and ethnicity. In one of the most widely circulated collection of images, a young man was singled out as a suspect because he was wearing a backpack, alone and brown. On the image, posted on 4chan, “alone” and “brown” were written in all caps. Subsequently, the website Reddit wrongly fingered a missing South Asian student from Brown University as the suspect—for which they, rightfully, later apologized.
We Americans all swim in centuries of racial bias only made more acute by 9/11 and its aftermath. Unchecked, such bias can take over. This is why we have public servants in the professional news media, to resist the rushing crowds of assumptions, to swim upstream by responding to biases and fear with context and insight. But in the wake of the Boston bombings, far too often, news media got caught downstream.
Like Reddit, the New York Post jumped on the amateur sleuth bandwagon and put a picture of a 17-year-old Arab American student on its cover, naming him as a suspect. Unlike Reddit, the New York Post did not apologize—but simply posted a story that the kid and his friend were “cleared” by authorities. Yet while the New York Post was by far the worst offender in piling onto and perpetuating bias-tinged information, they were by no means alone within the professional news community. Many in the media contributed reason and restraint, but too many did not.
Resisting the tide of conventional wisdom has always been challenging. That challenge is even greater in the era of social media, where the sheer volume and speed of information coursing past us can become a deluge, constantly threatening to drown traditional media in obsolescence. Reportedly, the first tweet about something potentially amiss at the marathon was sent at 2:50 p.m. on Monday. According to TVNewser, cable news stations didn’t report the explosions until 3:06 p.m. (first Fox, followed by CNN in the same minute, then MSNBC two minutes later). In a reflection of the hurry-up-and-join-the-crowd ethos of the moment, TVNewer noted, “All three cable news networks were several minutes behind the first reports of the explosions on Twitter.”
But is that a bad thing? Twitter is a mush of unverified information. Don’t we want journalists calling sources and getting multiple confirmations before reporting news and setting the aftermath into motion? And certainly confirming things as important as the identification of suspects and their race and ethnicity? In times of crisis, the rush of social media can push us faster and further downstream; more than ever, we need a reliable countervailing force willing to buck the tide.
As Simon Rickets wrote in the Guardian last week:
One of the theories you learn when you train to be a journalist is the “funnel” of news. Imagine a funnel. It’s getting all the information about a certain news story poured into it—from the top. Wild rumours and hard facts. Witness accounts alongside back-of-a-cigarette packet theories. The funnel is the journalist. And the funnel’s job is to take all the information, from the crazy and the correct, and pour it, with a measure of control, into the story. Take out the impurities, crush up the lumps, and make the resulting article a distillation of the thousands of snippets, with no errors.
And that includes trying, as best as possible, to filter out the fears and biases from which we as human beings are rarely immune.
After the actual suspects were identified, media figures—including myself—quickly referred to the brothers as Chechens. But then it was pointed out to me (on Twitter, incidentally) that no one was calling them Americans, which they of course were. If the situation had been reversed—if these two brothers had been victims of the bombings instead of alleged perpetrators—we would all be emphasizing their American-ness, wrapping the fallen in our flag. As a people, we Americans are notoriously fickle in our inclinations to grant and revoke our sense of national identity. As a media, we should responsibly resist such subjective portrayals. In moments like these, people make assumptions. It becomes all the more important for media to challenge those assumptions and keep our prejudices in check.
The job of a public servant is to run away from conventional wisdom and toward the tangled mess of reality from which facts and insights—and humanity—can be rescued. Our public servants with badges and uniforms performed heroically in the face of mass chaos, saving the lives of hundreds and helping calm the fears of an unsettled city and nation. But too many of our public servants with pens and cameras let us down by repeating or even feeding our worst fears and biases.
Sadly, there will probably be a “next time.” When it comes, I hope that more of us in the news media will swim upstream.
Sally Kohn is a regular contributor to Colorlines. She is an activist, writer and political analyst on Fox News. You can find her online at SallyKohn.com.