Conjectural Journalism: John King is a Jerk

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On April 15, after the terrorists attacked the Boston Marathon, we Bostonians rushed towards the explosions to help the injured, and we rushed to hospitals to give blood. In the chaos, we rushed to the internet to find out if our friends were safe. The media responded by rushing to conclusions.

After the bombings, we tried to go back to work and return to normalcy. We were all “Boston Strong,” but we wanted to know who attacked us and why. At my office we listened intently to a CNN live stream all day awaiting the latest developments from BPD, Deval Patrick, and the FBI. CNN’s John King reported that the suspect was a “dark-skinned” male; that he was arrested and en route to Moakley Courthouse. There was a sense of jubilation that law enforcement had brought our lingering fears to a swift end. Then the FBI released the following to the press:

“Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.” – FBI Boston

The media lied. It is so easy to be cynical about the news, but there is an understanding that the media is supposed to be timely and accurate with its reporting. In an effort to be timely in the age of Twitter, it seems the media needs to break news before it happens in order to compete. Instead of conducting investigative journalism to get the most accurate information, the media took up conjectural journalism to act first and fill in the facts later. During the lockdown on Friday, it seemed that news anchors were getting paid by the theory. A Channel 7 News WHDH commentator hypothesized that Suspect #2, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had a suicide vest and was on the boat to go down in a blaze of glory. This was not true.

Because anyone on Twitter can be a journalist and anyone on reddit can be a sleuth, there’s an effort on the part of the media to beat them to the punch. This was a problem when the New York Post ran a picture of the “suspects” on the front page:

These were not the suspects. These were two innocent high school students.

There is a measure of pride to be had at being the first to know, or first to comment, or first to tell. However, there is no pride to be had in being first if you are wrong. Yet, the big news agencies are too big to be scathed by being wrong. CNN was completely incorrect in reporting the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, and the only visible punishment they received was at the hands of the Daily Show.

April 15-19 was the most chaotic week I have ever faced. First there was the bomb, then Obama came to comfort Boston, and then the lockdown occurred. Although I’m slipping back into a routine, it is hard to forget what Boston went through. I cannot forget that the people whose job it is to inform the public were so greatly misinformed.

I am proud of Boston, its police, and its people. I am proud that I am part of the city and that I am “Boston Strong.” There were so many heroes last week by which to be impressed. However, there is a tarnish on our city of heroes because of shoddy reporting. We donned our Red Sox hats and shouted, “Boston Strong”, but there was fear that week. The media’s journalism generally did not alleviate those fears. There is no need for yellow journalism anymore. There is no need to embellish when the facts are already scary enough.

The week of the Marathon was a troubling time from which we are still recovering. We learned just how capable and courageous we are as a city, and I believe that these events will make us smarter. There was a lack of information in the days after the bombing that caused people to fill in their own facts. There were no unexploded devices at the marathon, the bombs were not in trash cans, and the culprits can hardly be described as “dark-skinned.” Reddit did not help much either when its users set off a witch hunt for innocent people with backpacks. Reporting the news is a lengthy process involving interviews, eyewitness accounts, pictures, video, and analysis. There is not enough room in 140 characters for all that.

Eric Massak
Political Science ’14

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