New York Times Magazine has an article out this week by Jay Caspian Kang that should probably devastate a few journalists we all know—or at the very least, make them think long and hard about themselves.
You know this story. It’s about how, in the information void after the Boston bombings a bunch of internet sleuths took to Reddit and fingered an innocent kid—Sunil Tripathi—as Suspect No. 2. What you might not know much about is how a few journalists on Twitter fueled the fire by taking Reddit’s accusation and building a bridge from “take this with a grain of salt” to “absolutely credible.”
Whether it was a desire to be first or just part of a really big story, whether it was a lack of experience or training or oversight or naivete or some combination of all of these, these few journalists took absolutely unverified bits of information from Twitter posts and republished them as facts without, at least according to NYT Mag, barely even a second’s thought.
Sunil was already missing when the bombings occurred. His family had been searching for him for days. When Reddit accused him of being a suspect, the Facebook page his family created in hopes of finding him was flooded with vile messages. So they took it down. This was, of course, so suspicious that journalists had to openly ruminate about what it might mean for their audiences on Twitter, without, you know, stopping for a damn second to think of the consequences.
Here’s how it started, according to NYT Mag:
- Sasha Stone, who runs an inside-Hollywood website called Awards Daily, tweeted 10:56 p.m.: “I’m sure by now the @fbipressoffice is looking into this dude” and included a link to the Facebook page. Minutes later: “Seconds after I sent that tweet the page is gone off of Facebook. If you can cache it…”
- Erik Malinowski, a senior sportswriter at BuzzFeed, whose Twitter following includes a number of journalists, tweeted: “FYI: A Facebook group dedicated to finding Tripathi, the missing Brown student, was deleted this evening.” Roughly 300 Twitter users retweeted Malinowski’s post.
- Perez Hilton, was one of those 300. He retweeted Malinowski, sending Tripathi’s name out to more than six million followers.
That was pretty much all it took. Kang writes:
“From there, the small, contained world of speculation exploded on every social-media platform. Several journalists began tweeting out guarded thoughts about Sunil’s involvement. If the family had taken down the Facebook page, the reasoning went, it must mean that the Tripathis had seen their missing son in the grainy photos of Suspect No. 2.”
For a group of journalists now running this accuse-an-innocent-missing-already-emotionally-unstable-kid-of-terrorism show, what happened next is remarkable just for the fact that none of them seemed to do any actual journalism. Why bother? Some guy that no one ever heard of —Kang says he’s all but disappeared from the internet—tweeted that it was confirmed on scanner traffic in Boston that Sunil was definitely Supsect No. 2. Bam! Case closed!
- Andrew Kaczynski, another journalist at BuzzFeed, sent out the police-scanner misinformation to his 90,000 followers and quickly followed up with: “Wow Reddit was right about the missing Brown student per the police scanner. Suspect identified as Sunil Tripathi.”
- Luke Russert, a reporter for NBC News, tweeted out a photo of the younger Tsarnaev with the commentary: “This pic kinda feeds Sunil Tripathi theory.”
- @YourAnonNews, a Twitter news feed connected to the hacker collective Anonymous, tweeted out Tripathi’s name to the hundreds of thousands of people who follow the account.
- Dylan Byers, Politico, retweeted the information to his 20,000+ followers.
Kang says: “By 3 a.m., in many heavily trafficked corners of the Internet, it was accepted that Sunil Tripathi was Suspect No. 2, and Reddit had got there first.”
Not long after the bombings, Tripathi was found dead, his body floating in a river. He obviously was not one of the Boston bombers, but the damage to his family had been done. The tweets even destroyed the business of the private missing-persons organization that was working with the them. Several of the journalists involved, according to Kang, apologized directly to the Tripathi’s. But then there’s this:
“Breaking-news reporting has always been chaotic, and it’s more so now because the overall volume of misinformation, loosed by millions on Reddit and Twitter, has ballooned out of control. Andrew Kaczynski of BuzzFeed wrote a morning post-mortem on the site, along with a colleague, Rosie Gray, who had also tweeted about Sunil Tripathi. Neither mentioned their own involvement in spreading the wrong name, and Kaczynski has since deleted his incriminating tweets.”
Really? Neither mentioned his or her own involvement?
The problem here is not just one of old media vs. new. We’ve seen old media be just as sloppy. Please don’t just see the words BuzzFeed all over this post and forget that “Luke Russert,” “NBC News” and “Politico” are up there, too. The problem here might be one of vetting.
Many of these journalists that NYT Mag mentioned share in common the fact that they rose to national prominence by hopping and skipping a few rungs up the ladder. Years ago, you couldn’t spread misinformation to a national audience unless you worked for a national media outlet, and you didn’t get there by becoming famous on Youtube first. You got there by working for years in the trenches, learning from those with experience and making these kinds of mistakes with a net below you, first.
Usually, with a such a dangerous trend, the bubble bursts and the system self-corrects. We’ve had the burst, we’re just not seeing the self-correction. The fact that Kacynzski and Gray wrote a post-mortem about the entire situation yet managed to be so self-unaware as to forget their own place in it (and we’re being generous by not assuming they intentionally left themselves out of the story) makes them, at best, volatile unknowns.
Kang spoke directly with Byers, who trotted out the tired old line that retweets aren’t endorsements. Screw that. It’s irresponsible, disingenuous and slimey to keep hiding behind that particular brand of journalism-manufactured idiocracy. We can do whatever we like as long as it’s a retweet? Seriously? That’s your standard? Mistakes are one thing, we all make them. Rationalizing them is another.
The public deserves better from all of us, especially in breaking news situations. Will they get it? Looking at the trends, we have our doubts.