NYT Mag: Journalists Share Blame with Reddit for Boston Bombing Mistakes

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.”