Facts finally make news amid Boston chaos

Local TV stations and a science writing professor school the 24-hour news and social media on getting facts and getting them right.

By Jason Notte Apr 19, 2013 3:19PM

Police officers walk near a crime scene during the early morning hours Friday, April 19, 2013, in Watertown, Mass. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)A city shouldn't have to go to bed amid gunfire and explosions and wake up under lockdown for the information it's receiving to matter.

One would have thought that bombs going off in the middle of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three people and maiming nearly 200 others, would have signaled the end of play time for the press corps and the start of patient, fact-based journalism.

A teenager in Revere, Mass., who's still afraid to leave his home after being labeled a suspect in the marathon bombing by News Corp.'s (NWS) New York Post can attest to the contrary. As can anyone who watched Time Warner's (TWX) CNN erroneously report on Wednesday that a "dark-skinned male" suspect had been arrested.

After a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer was killed Thursday night and a chase, a shootout that left a bombing suspect dead and a citywide manhunt followed, the misinformation didn't stop. Fortunately for people huddled in their homes in the Boston area, a few journalists stopped writing essays and quoting anonymous sources and started waiting on facts and covering what they saw.

Some of the old reporting tools received a thorough and long-overdue workout Thursday. Local television news outlets, including CBS (CBS) affiliate WBZ and NBC's (CMCSA) WHDH, reported from the police perimeter lines in Watertown, Mass. They calmly and unsensationally kept people in the area aware of police movement and activity, reported only the information they had firsthand and received a pat on the back from the Columbia Journalism Review for staying with the story, keeping the cameras rolling and, while showing footage of the shootout itself, not editing for language or content.

People also turned to sites like Tune-In.com or Broadcastify to first-source their information by listening to the Boston Police Department scanners, as many had after the bombings Monday. While that helped quell fears when slammed Watertown dumpsters were mistaken for gunshots, it also played a role in the early misidentification of the bombing suspects.

Twitter was flooded with tweets and retweets that alleged the suspects police were pursuing were not only connected to the Boston Marathon bombings but were "Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi." That information, as the world now knows, was patently false, but that didn't prevent social media from running with it. Commenters on Reddit congratulated each other and sought "Reddit gold" for identifying Tripathi -- a Brown University student who went missing in March -- as a suspect early Friday morning but were apologizing to Tripathi's family just a few hours later.

Tripathi's family issued a statement expressing gratitude for both the mea culpa and offers to help locate Sunil. Still, they've received far more than anyone got out of 4chan, which spent the week identifying just about anyone with a backpack as a suspect in its Think Tank of images and circled individuals.

Fortunately for Boston-area residents, some folks in their midst still used social media and journalism fundamentals in tandem to disseminate factual information and relay events as they were occurring. While Watertown resident Andrew Kitzenburg had the story come to him when the shootout occurred on his street, bullets came through his home and a suspect fled past his house, others in the area sought out the story themselves.

Author and MIT science writing professor Seth Mnookin reportedly spent much of Thursday night into Friday morning tweeting police movements, situation updates and on-scene observations from law enforcement perimeter lines. As police exchanged gunfire with the suspect and dodged and defused explosives, Mnookin meted out details about their locations and instructions to Watertown residents. He also refused to name suspects and connect incidents until all the facts were in, which led to an impromptu lesson from the professor and perhaps the most prescient media-related quote out of Boston all week.

"This is classic I'd rather be late and right scenario. It doesn't matter who's first by five minutes; it does matter if bad info given out."

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Apr 19, 2013 4:20PM
The problem is that news companies are more concerned with making headlines then reporting the truth. Everyone is looking for information so these companies knowingly report unverified news in order to get ratings. Until news companies are liable for what they report they will continue to make unfounded accusations in order to increase ratings.
Apr 19, 2013 4:50PM
Too often in the news media it is more important to be sensational than factual.  It is important to be politically correct.  Objectivity has been missing from news broadcasts and printed stories for quite some time.  The bias in these reports is heavy.  There seems to be more interest in influencing people than in giving them the facts of a story.
Apr 19, 2013 5:37PM
Since when did facts matter?  With the advent of the 24hr drive-by news cycle, it's all spin, all the time.  This is just another tool they use to keep us divided, so we are preoccupied with petty things, while our traditions and liberties slowly erode into the abyss.

If you really want the truth, figure out what the media ISN'T reporting.


Sensationalism at its best. Headlines you can depend on (to be false).

What exactly is the news good for? Hearing their point of view? Listening to them espouse their opinions? Not even the weather is dependable.

I'm done with them all. I wade in the muck myself, that's my point of view news.

Apr 19, 2013 5:25PM
What can we all say... while Congress was asleep at the wheel and all the career politicians were too busy in-fighting in Us vs. Them mode... weak-minded terrorist-Inflationists colluded and conspired to build all these Too Big To Operate With Ethics Oligarchies. It probably took 15-20 years to build up this much anti-America. Unfortunately, it will require taking them apart and snuffing their gene pools to end all the damage, control and manipulation they've caused. I still remember when we watched the news to see and hear the news, not the Kool Aid.
Apr 19, 2013 5:36PM
CNN was out of control again today with their sensationalism and myth-based analysis of the day's events. Good grief, please tone it down. Just the facts mam!
Apr 19, 2013 6:51PM
The worst of this is the teenager in Revere MA being publicly labeled incorrectly as the terrorist by the NY Post.  I'm not a big proponent of law suits, but in this case, I'd like to see this kid, or his family, sue and win!

Look at the division of comments on here. "Liberal news" "Conservative news" Fox vs. MSNBC.

Has anyone seen this so bad since the great community organizer was voted in?

Call me a conservative, I am. But black vs white, rich vs poor, men vs. women has never been at such a fever pitch as now.

We even have red and blue states...Bloods vs Crips anyone?

We need a uniter. It's no fault of Obama's, it's just that it isn't him. No one can MAKE him be the uniter. A uniter must be universally accepted, and with America's entrenched beliefs, it will be amazingly hard to find this person, symbol, or event that brings us all together again.

Apr 19, 2013 8:35PM

It was a pleasure to watch the liberal news media fall all over themselves.  It was embarrassing to be a viewer.  Hahahahahaha!


God bless those folks and families affected by this awful act of terrorism.

Apr 19, 2013 5:39PM

NBC and its other "journalism" ventures could not recognize a fact if it bit them in the face.

Apr 19, 2013 5:14PM
Plenty of erroneous reporting from MSNBC, NBC, CNN  and most of the liberal press also.  Wonder why the author singled out the ONLY non liberal newspaper?  Prejudice, that's way.
Apr 19, 2013 4:35PM
NBC has yet to call the bombers what they are, Islamic terrorists". Obama still has the NBC chain firmly in his grasp.
Apr 21, 2013 6:49PM

Liberal News Media.....Conservative News Outlets...???


Some of you sound as goddamn stupid, as the Media outlets; It's not News, it's Sensationalism..

IT'S ALL ABOUT RATINGS, WITH ALL OF THEM.....WAKE UP, smell the coffee or bullshidt ??

Sweet Geezus..

Apr 21, 2013 6:12PM

Seems in the very end...There was one Hero, an Old guy, his dog and his boat...


Funny how the Media "glossed over the disaster in Texas" for a "locked downed City back East."

American newscasts are hardly worth watching for more then 10 minutes... 

Apr 19, 2013 4:24PM
I'm sure FOX news got it wrong... they usually do :-(
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