Monday April 29, 2013

Last Thursday, the family of 22-year-old Brown University student Sunil Tripathi learned that a body pulled from the Providence River earlier in the week had been identified as that of their son, who had been missing since March 15. This ended a horrible month for the Tripathi family, whose misery had been compounded a week earlier when the Reddit website identified him as a possible suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. This was the most glaring reminder of many in recent weeks of how social media and electronic journalism, for all of their great strengths, carry great responsibilities.

When police were unable to find their missing son, the Tripathi family set up a Twitter account, made a video and launched a Facebook page entitled "Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi." This method of employing social media has helped and will help desperate families searching for loved ones. But then came the Patriots Day bombings, and Reddit’s conclusion that Mr. Tripathi, in the photos posted by the family, resembled one of the bombing suspects in the footage released by authorities. This speculation spread at the speed of light through Twitter, where the missing student was called a terrorist and demeaned with ethnic slurs, adding to his parents’ misery. Reddit apologized after the Tsarnaev brothers were identified, and then came Thursday’s terrible news.

Crowd-sourcing was a valuable technique in identifying the bombers, as law enforcement authorities found their suspects after putting out the call to anyone in the vicinity of the marathon who may have inadvertently photographed them. A weakness of that technique emerged when those at Reddit decided to become amateur sleuths and practice what was essentially vigilantism. Identifying and pursuing suspects is a job for professionals.

The news professionals had bad moments as well, particularly CNN, whose John King reported two days after the bombing that authorities had a suspect in custody, specifically a "dark-skinned" male. The network soon acknowledged its error, but not before Fox News and, most disappointingly, Associated Press, followed CNN over the cliff. AP is expected to be a source of reason and accuracy.

The Boston Globe and The New York Times did consistently excellent work on all of their print and on-line platforms, however, as those organizations employ trained professionals experienced in sorting news from rumor and cautious about verifying before reporting. While technology has changed forever the way in which news travels, it has not changed certain truths, one of which is that traditional news organizations are more reliable than web sites and Twitter users indulging in speculation and character assassination. That will change, however, if news organizations like CNN act irresponsibly and make amateur mistakes. Getting the news first is important. Getting it right and providing the context in which the news can be judged are the highest priorities.