Wednesday, April 17, 2013

 

After tragedies like Boston, misinformation abounds


The technology that brings us instant reporting can also spread rumor and falsehood. Consumers should be wary of sources trying to be first rather than accurate.



It's been two days since twin bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring at least 175. At a press conference Tuesday, a series of officials – federal, state and local – summarized what we know about the perpetrator and motive behind the crime: Not much.

And just as in past tragedies, much of what we do know – or think we know – will turn out to be wrong.


Cell phones, 24-hour online news, and technologies like Twitter have given us instant delivery of news about events like the Boston bombings. That information can have value – think of the cell phone pictures we see from natural disasters long before the news cameras arrive.

But the instant reporting can also contain rumor and amplify falsehood.

Following the December mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., dozens of news outlets incorrectly identified the shooter as Ryan Lanza, the brother of the actual suspect, Adam Lanza. The errors persisted for much of the day.

During the January 2011 massacre in Tucson, Ariz., there was a false report that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been killed, a report that even reached Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly. (Mother Jones rounds up similarly botched crisis reporting stretching back to 9/11.)

"Immediacy is a value and it's a positive value," said Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior writing scholar for the Poynter Institute. "Verification is a positive value. And the two don't always go together."

Clark says verification, which is "time consuming and labor intensive," faces incredible challenges in a new cycle where technology and competition demand speed.


Boston had its own collection of false and misleading reports. The New York Post reported 12 people dead for most of the day Monday, though the death toll was only three. The Associated Press had to walk back a story about cell phone service being shutdown in Boston to prevent terrorists from remotely detonating unexploded devices. The network was simply struggling under the heavy call load.

In fact there were no unexploded devices at all. The two bombs that went off were the only ones, officials said Tuesday. Widespread reports said other bombs had been found, defused, and collected as evidence.

And it appears that a Saudi man taken into custody on the day of the bombings was merely another witness. Bystanders had tackled him when he was seen running away from the bombings, like nearly everyone else.


Clark similarly noted a cable news "crawl" – the moving banner at the bottom of the screen – that "said they were looking for a dark skinned or black man, wearing a hoodie, who had a foreign accent. I said to myself, 'Oh my God, where is that information coming from?' That is information that is not very likely to lead to the arrest of a guilty party, but may cast suspicion on a lot of innocent people in the Boston area."

Beyond the mistakes made in the press – often attributable to credible sources who themselves had wrong information – there is the hysteria that takes hold on social media: Speculation quickly passed on as fact, the all-to-hasty search for who to blame, and conspiracy theories, like radio host Alex Jones's immediate claim that Boston bombings were a "false flag" – an act of the government itself that would be used to scapegoat opponents and press new policies.

Slate's Jeremy Stahl on Tuesday penned a timely guide for journalists on how to use Twitter  during tragedies like Boston, and stresses the use of local, eyewitness, and official sources.

Government officials are in their own bind, forced to walk a fine line between keeping the public informed and compromising the investigation. President Obama and top diplomatic officials were excoriated in the wake of the attack that killed four U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, for providing early details on the attack that turned out to be at least partially untrue.

Clark's advice to news consumers is to be skeptical, to look at multiple sources, and to test their reliability over time. "Even people who have lots of time to write about events ... weeks and months and years ... can still get it wrong," he said.

And as for the flood of post-tragedy news reports, "I see no evidence that getting it first and being wrong is the doorway to a new business model," Clark said. "Quite the contrary."

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Respect for the truth is almost the basis of all morality.
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