“Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.”
William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II
The Boston marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt is the first terrorist attack against a western target in the social media age. Not even 5 minutes had passed since the first bomb detonated changing the lives of hundreds and ending those of 3 before images were circulating on the internet, the most poignant of all is that of Jeff Bauman being wheeled away one leg missing and all that remains on the other is the bone and hanging torn flesh. For a moment 24 hour rolling news and Social media were working side by side, one feeding the other news instantaneously. Sadly that didn’t last.
Rolling news has a problem, that problem is rolling news. Just like newspapers need to get exclusives to boost sales and damage competitors, rolling news needs the same they need the next big story, with reporters and cameras at the scene before their rivals. Nowhere more clearly illustrated that than Boston.
When the AP put a flash out quoting one unnamed source that an Arrest was imminent it was quickly spread on social media, however, like a massive game of chinese whispers the “truth” became distorted.
Unless you were on CNN, in which case the truth got well and truly kicked in the nuts. When it comes to breaking news CNN used to be the master, it was one of the first 24 hour news networks and built up a respectable reputation for objectivity and good journalistic practice. Of course that was before competition from Fox news and MSNBC, now they seem more content to show celebrity or human interest stories and not actual news.
It was thought that the low point for CNN was the “hologram” used for the 2008 election in an attempt to get more viewers. However the 1 hour 40 minutes on wednesday left us all yearning for a return of the hologram.
It began with CNN contributor John King reporting a breakthrough in the identification of the bombers before describing them as a “dark skinned male” then saying that speculating on the suspect may inflame tensions, then followed up by repeating the dark skinned male line.
Shortly after King looked at his phone and broke in that there was an arrest, immediately AP tweeted this as breaking news and a media scrum ensured. Most major networks carried this as breaking news despite it coming from one unnamed source “close to the investigation.” What followed was half an hour of speculation on the suspect it wasn’t until an hour later when CNN law enforcement expert, Tom Fuentes, a former assistant director of the F.B.I., appeared on the air and reported that he had three sources who assured him no arrest had been made.
CNN then double backed and tried to distance themselves from the speculation they themselves had caused (or in the words of Jon Stewart; CNN had become the human centipede of news, eating it’s own shit in some sort of cycle)
This shows the main problem with 24 hour news on a developing story, you have 3,4 or more people with a lot of time to kill between developments, so, it’s obvious that speculation and gossip take over and now social media is such an integral part this now makes these broadcasts a bit like the drunk in the bar spouting off about anything to anyone who would listen.
Print media haven’t covered themselves in glory. Special mention goes to the -soon to be written off- New York Post, who haven’t endeared themselves to their owner, Rupert Murdoch, who is considering a sale of the paper. The NYP who faced criticism in December for reprinting a picture of Ki Suk Han trying to climb back onto the New York Subway platform. He was unsuccessful and Mr Han was killed under the headline “DOOMED.”
This time the Post headline was “Bag men” and contained an image of 2 individuals it said police were looking for. These two have two things in common, they have bags, but so did many people present. The other link is their skin colour, they’re both “brown.”
Salah Barhoun came forward to protest his innocence and now thanks to the internet and media is now fearful of reprisals. It transpired that the suspects weren’t brown they were Caucasian, in fact the only way they could be any more Caucasian would be if they were from the Caucasus, and they were. But the Post still decided to play a game of Where’s Ahmed with the crowd and along with some sections of the internet wrongfully identifies other innocent victims as suspects and again under the sole reason that they were “brown.” The MailOnline had an image under another accusing headline showing a man running away from the explosion claiming he was a suspect because “he was seen running in the opposite direction from the crowd” And also because he was Brown.
The media and internet detectives haven’t covered themselves in glory and it turns out the suspects were stopped by a combination of real police work and a vigilant city even with the hindrances of press and Internet.