Tragedy and Social Media: News in the wake of Boston

There I sat, deep into the night, watching the Boston manhunt unfold before my very eyes. Now that the dust is settling, we have learned all about the “Boston Bombers” and their alleged exploits, from the marathon bombing to the murder of several police officers and the frantic police search that ensued.

The events of that evening have me contemplating the way we consume tragedy and news via social media. As I monitored my computer screen that night, hoping and praying the suspect would be captured, I followed hundreds of conflicting reports, tweets, press releases and Facebook updates. Media outlets around the country tried desperately to provide the public with the most up to date information available. Unfortunately, such information has become harder and harder to validate.

It is both a blessing and a curse. Police and city officials now have the opportunity to relay safety information to their citizens through a number of avenues.  This was utilized quite well throughout the manhunt as Boston Officials routinely held press conferences with updates and requests for affected citizens. But conflicting stories have the ability to cause mass confusion during dangerous times.

While news outlets attempted to confirm footage and information before giving it to the public, Twitter and other informal mediums exploded with updates as fast as fingers could type. I mean goodness; I was learning the most information about the manhunt from a Boston based comedian blogger before having his tweets confirmed by real news media a full half hour later.

The night began with reports of a random shooting before eventually attributing those actions to the Boston Bomber suspects. Then suddenly, during a two-hour stretch, officials were claiming the bomber might be the missing Sunil Tripathi, who mysteriously vanished from Brown University last month.  Social media ran wild with that story. Admittedly the missing boy did resemble the bombing suspect photos released by the FBI, and his absence, exactly a month before the chaos began, certainly made for a great story.

By now we have learned that the missing man had nothing to do with this case. His family went through a roller coaster of emotions that night, unsure of what to believe.

The plot twists were unthinkable, and I realized them in real time as tweets and radio streams poured out any information they could get their hands on.

One outlet reported a suspect in custody, but minutes later backtracked by claiming that police shot him to death. Another news source released information that the suspect committed suicide with an explosive strapped to his chest, before later stating his accomplice ran him over while evading the police.

At the time, any one of those stories could have been true. What exactly transpired that night remains relatively unclear, but most of what was relayed to the public that night through social media has changed or been corrected.

Reporters seek immediate updates, as each one attempts to be the first to break a story. What has developed is a fascinating competition. They desperately try to cite “sources” that might defer liability if their information proves to be incorrect. However, they must also balance time sensitive information with journalistic integrity and credibility.

While CBS reported the suspects to be two Chechnya-born brothers, NBC’s Pete Williams insisted throughout the night that they were recent transplants to the United States with extensive military training. With mere minutes separating a breaking story from old news, major outlets are faced with the risk of looking stupid should their information prove false.

We are now learning more and more about these two individuals and their tragic endeavors. Watching the scenes unfold in real time through social media was incredible, but ultimately we must allow time to play its role. With so much power at our fingertips, we would be wise to use them with caution.