To say yesterday was exhausting wouldn’t do it justice. Emotions are running high in the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. If you’ve seen any of the video from when the explosion took place, one thing is clear: that is what terror sounds like.
People across the country are frightened and hurting. They’re desperate for information. In some cases, they’re searching for loved ones. In others, they just want answers about what this means and what comes next. It’s a scary time.
The quest for more information has created another uncomfortable reality that’s been hard to wrap our minds around. As people took to Twitter and Facebook for news and context, they encountered a disconcerting labyrinth of conflicting reports, and sometimes genuinely offensive commentary. Anger has begun to bubble up. Fingers are being pointed towards militia groups and Al Qaeda. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have any evidence to support that finger pointing. It’s happening anyway.
So I want us to press pause. I want us to take a step back, think about what’s taken place (attack and beyond), and reflect on what it means. You might not be at a place to do so yet. That’s fine. Grieving is not a uniform process. Coping with fear is not a standard affair. But if you’re one of the people who has been calm enough to begin the finger pointing or lament the quality of the press, read on.
A Brief Recap
I’m not going to pretend to have all the details on this story, because – frankly – no one does. What I want to go over is how the story played out. There are no links to articles below, because by the time you go to click on them, the story will have changed. Here’s what we know.
Around 2:50 PM EST yesterday afternoon, around a time in the Boston Marathon where the finish line is typically most populated, two explosions occurred. Around the same time, there were reports of a fire at JFK Library. That report would later change into an explosion happening, before transitioning back into a simple fire, back to an explosion, and, finally, back to a fire not at all related to the bombings.
Authorities began scouring tape and images from the area immediately, looking for suspicious figures or abandoned packages. How the explosives got to where they did – given the tight security and ongoing sweeps – is still unknown. However, in the wake of the blasts, as spectators and runners fled, many more personal items were left behind. Given that there were two explosions, the possibility of additional explosive devices in the area could not be ruled out, and a coordinated search began. There were reports of five additional explosive devices being found.
There was a controlled third explosion in the vicinity of the initial blasts around 3:50 PM EST of a potential device. At the 5:30 PM EST press conference, it was clarified that controlled explosions did not necessarily mean they had found an explosive – just that an item was suspicious enough to warrant an abundance of caution. As of the 8:30 PM EST press conference with investigating authorities, no additional explosives had been found. After the press conference this morning, we’re still at only two.
At 4:04 PM EST, a piece was put out by the New York Post that garnered significant traction. The article indicated that there were 12 dead from the attack – a number much higher than the reports in circulation at the time. It also indicated that law enforcement officials had confirmed they had a suspect being guarded at a local hospital. It explicitly identified the man as a Saudi national. No other source, at the time, had the story. Around 5:15 PM EST, Fox News – owned by the same company as the NY Post – confirmed it. A little while later, other major news networks started to carry the story.
At the 5:30 PM EST press conference, the Boston Police Commissioner stated in no uncertain terms that they did not have a suspect in custody. He also stated that they had a police presence in all of the hospitals for security purposes, and to take statements from individuals at the scene. The NY Post did not back down from their story. Stories of a suspect in custody at a different hospital began to circulate a little while later. At the 8:30 PM EST press conference, the Commissioner repeated that the reports circulating about a suspect were patently false across the board. The stories have continued.
That’s what we know. It’s not very much, frankly. And it will probably change dramatically over the next few days.
Before We Go Any Further…
Reporting is hard under the best of circumstances. As a blogger and commentator, my writing is much easier, and there are still days I feel like it’s impossible. If you’v ever been charged with conducting original research, you might have an idea of how difficult it is. You probably still won’t get it.
For context: imagine needing to start with a working understanding of really complex and important issues – an understanding that can take years to develop. Then envision needing to relearn a lot of what you know on a regular basis, because the important issues are ever evolving. Then think about needing to find out more information on a new angle, but the people who you know have reliable information are probably unreachable for frank comment. Remember that their standard line has already been regurgitated a dozen times over by the wires, and the rest of your sources are suspect at best. Consider what it would be like to have to vet each and every one of your sources, and consider that the depth of said vetting and the time that goes into it increases with the significance of the story.
Now imagine doing all of this on a time crunch. In most cases (and particularly with breaking news or developing stories), your reporting is perceived as most valuable if you get there first. As a reporter, you know this. Your editor does, too, and odds are, they’re going to be pushing you to go faster than you’re already pushing yourself. In a world of digital reporting, where page views fuel the bottom line via advertising, getting there first is even more important. With social media – and the character limited Twitter platform, in particular – taking center stage for breaking news, multiply all of that times ten.
Sound overwhelming and damn near impossible to get right? That’s because it is.
In a crisis, reporting gets infinitely more difficult. Those on the ground have eye witnesses as a first hand source, but eye witness accounts are frequently unreliable. When a situation is as panic filled as an attack like this one, those accounts become even less reliable, and feature fewer and fewer concrete details. In some instances, the accounts may be entirely accurate, but without context (and in a world where context is rapidly evolving), reporting on those accounts can misinform the public. For instance, when the controlled explosion took place, some were reporting a third explosion without indicating that it was being carried out by the police. Same report – different context – different meaning.
Even those looking for reports from authorities run into issues. They could always wait for the official comments, of course. The problem is that those comments rarely feature the details people are asking for, and everyone tends to get them at the same time, limiting ability for a speed advantage.
At that point, lower level figures with the authorities seem a prime option for getting information. After all, if they’re working the same case, they should all know what’s going on, right? Wrong – specifically wrong when it’s a scene like the one we saw in Boston. Authorities try to centralize communication as much as possible, but even then, the information flow is imperfect. Remember all the reports yesterday with conflicting information? Remember how most of them were citing some sort of member of the authorities as their sources?
Even when the information is right, the slightest variation in choice of words can make all the difference. Particularly with Twitter’s character limits, statements from authorities can be made to look like declarative statements, even when hedging language was initially used by the source in question. So even if the initial reporting is accurate, that pesky MT (modified tweet) tag can pervert the message.
Sensing a lot of “even if” statements? That’s the point. It’s just that complicated.
To be clear, when I say reporters, in this instance, I’m talking about individuals on the ground, providing basic reports of information written for a news source (via social media or published articles) or on live television. I do not mean commentators and pundits. By and large (with a handful of notable exceptions), commentators were not reporting yesterday. We’ll get to them in a minute.
The point I’m trying to make is that reporting in the midst of a crisis is extraordinarily challenging. What comes next is not a critique of the reporting we saw today. For God’s sake, how many reporters were running the marathon, and stuck around to cover the attacks?
The reporting today was never going to be perfect. There were going to be mistakes. There were going to be retractions. That was never even a question. That was not the problem.
The problem came when agenda and demonization entered the mix.
When Reactionary Goes Wrong
While the reporting – flawed at times though it may have been – was laudable, communication on the events unfolding in Boston was not as commendable across the board.
Before the smoke had even begun to clear, Alex Jones was claiming the attack a “false flag” – a phrase used to describe an allegedly covert government op intended to be presented to the public as an outside attack.
The false flag question would get repeated again later, as someone yelled a question about it during the 8:30 PM EST press conference, but not long after Jones started to stir the pot, the more predictable fear-mongering raised its ugly head, as Fox News contributor Erik Rush tweeted:
He also “sarcastically” suggested we should kill all the Muslims in response. He wouldn’t be the last to point fingers at the Middle East (more in a second), but not to be outdone, Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball had his own incendiary take. He started off with a helluva broad brush on domestic terrorism:
Normally, domestic terrorists, people tend to be on the far right, well that’s not a good category, just extremists, let’s call them that. Do they advertise after they do something like this? Do they try to get credit as a group or do they just hate America so much or its politics or its government that they just want to do the damage, they don’t care if they get public credit, if you will?
His guest tried to defuse the suggestion by indicating multiple parties would likely take responsibility for the attacks, but Matthews seemed determined to pursue the line of thought, saying:
But going after the Kennedy Library, not something at Bunker Hill, not something from the Freedom Trail or anything that kind of historic, but a modern political figure of the Democratic Party. Does that tell you anything?
He wasn’t completely free of the anti-Islamic fear-mongering, either – repeatedly referring to potential jihadist involvement.
Here’s the problem with all of this:
There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the speculation. We don’t know anything yet. Emotions are running high right now, and these are the folks people are turning to for guidance on what they should be afraid of, and the pundits are feeding them baseless allegations.
Typically, I give commentators and pundits a break. They’re supposed to be presenting an opinion, after all. As long as you’re getting a balanced diet of the various forms of bias we see in media, it’s not world ending. The problem here is that bias – namely, unfounded bias, also known as discriminatory rhetoric – gets digested by people with violent attitudes. Twitter has been downright ugly.
But there were problematic responses from the left side of the debate as well, even if they manifested in a very different way. While well-intentioned, I saw an onslaught of posts talking about how people lamenting the Boston situation without also grieving for the hundreds impacted by a series of bombings in Iraq today were calloused without perspective. I saw others saying it was disgusting to decry the attacks in Boston without also decrying the innocents killed by American drone strikes. There were a sprinkling of posts saying the mourning was warranted, but asking where that mourning was for the minority populations disproportionately imprisoned.
On both sides of the aisle, there were people causing problems with the way they approached the situation.
Why It Matters
Do I think all those people ranting about “towelheads” on Twitter are about to go violently attack someone? No.
Do I think other people might pursue vigilante justice? Possibly. The Washington Post had an excellent piece detailing the expressions of condolences for the attack from the Muslim world, and the very sad fact that these expressions were frequently riddled with fear. Those fears are not unwarranted. Hate crimes against those who appeared to be of Middle Eastern or Arab descent after 9/11 surged. They continue today. Already, there are stories on Twitter describing conversations overheard discussing “taking matters into our own hands.”
On the more liberal side of things, it became about competing grief and injury. Here’s the thing: you and I can be appalled by all of these things. We do not have to express condemnation for injustice in all instances to address it in one, though. Indeed, this can muddle the conversation while alienating people who are focused on dealing with an already huge tragedy from ever considering the ideas you’re presenting.
On both sides, there was a rush to attack each other about not handling the situation properly. The combination of all this was the furthest thing possible from helpful that I can imagine in this situation. Instead of focusing on safety, and assisting those in need, and our collective grief, we saw people trading barbs with self-interest.
It’s easy to dismiss all these people as isolated examples. But think about how we address these “isolated examples.” Erik Rush is given a platform to reach millions on Fox News. Despite this not being Chris Matthew’s first major gaffe, the man still has his own show. And those ranting in social media? They come from somewhere, right? “No man is an island,” as the saying goes, and for people to think this is an appropriate approach to dealing with crisis, there have to be people around them who are saying it’s ok – or, at a minimum, not saying anything at all. We’re missing the boat here, people.
Look for the Helpers
So what does one do to respond to a crisis? They do this:
How well this attack succeeds depends much less on what happened in Boston than by our reactions in the coming weeks and months. Terrorism isn’t primarily a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.Don’t glorify the terrorists and their actions by calling this part of a “war on terror.” Wars involve two legitimate sides. There’s only one legitimate side here; those on the other are criminals. They should be found, arrested, and punished. But we need to be vigilant not to weaken the very freedoms and liberties that make this country great, meanwhile, just because we’re scared.Empathize, but refuse to be terrorized. Instead, be indomitable — and support leaders who are as well. That’s how to defeat terrorists.