Boston Marathon Bombings: Media Failed Us With Many False Reports

The past week has been a surge of information coming from an ocean of sources. Too many to count. The tragedy in Boston and the pursuit of the two suspects, the brothers Tsarnaev, has led to many a bleak realization. First that achieving safety, whether against gun shootings such as in Newton or terrorist attacks, is going to be a major defining mark of our times. And secondly, that mainstream and social media has a long way to go in ensuring fair and balanced coverage, free of bias and prejudice. 

The first thing we learned about the suspects is that they are ethnically Chechen. That piece of information cannot stand alone. Currently, there is no proof to their motivation or even guilt. Remember at this point they are still suspects. The younger brother Dzhokhar has yet to fully explicate on what transpired. Detectives are still working to put it all together. In the absence of facts, it is unsettling that the media was quick to jump to conclusions regarding motivation. I'll say this. When Adam Lanza was described by the media, he was immediately considered to be mentally unstable and a fan of the macabre. What he did became less about his person/ethnicity/race/color/religion, than his emotional grief. When it was first purported that the two men behind the Boston bombings were of Chechen descent, the framework of the accusations was very different. It must be that these two young men are terrorists linked to an international underground network, calling for Chechen independence. It must be Islamic terrorism. These things may be true. But to assume so before any facts emerge from a well-vested and thorough investigation, it simply ignorant prejudice. Unfortunately, that is nothing new to the Muslim American community.

In the midst of the information chaos that has engulfed the media, several reports surfaced. Most were later discredited. Speculation emerged and innocent people who had nothing to do with the carnage were crucified. On CNN, John King reported that a “dark-skinned male” was behind the bombings. That prompted a cover photo by the New York Post falsely accusing a Moroccan-American high schooler, Salah Barhoun, of being a “person of interest.” A Saudi Arabian man who was watching the race was chased and tackled by bystanders after the blast when he ran away. He, like everyone else, was running in the opposite direction of the bomb. Makes sense right? Apparently his dark skin and Arabic features don't make it a “duh” moment in America. Shame on us. Sarah Kendzior puts it well: “jogging while Arab” has become the new “driving while black.”

Not only is the barrage of misinformation and bias on the social media scene hurtful, it’s also dangerous. The hate crimes are already underway, beginning last Wednesday in Medford, Massachusetts. It’s nothing new. We go through these waves of backlash after a “Muslim” does something the world feels the rest of us have to apologize for. And those arguing against comprehensive immigration legislation because it would let in “more terrorists” only need to remember that there are terrorists everywhere, regardless of nationality. Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Timothy McVeigh are just a few. So dear Representative Peter King, the days of Japanese internment camps are behind us. 

I think Gideon Lichfield puts it well in his piece about the four ways the media failed us in covering the Boston bombings. Fact-checking was clearly not as important as winning the “we said it first” game the media loves to play. If we turn on the news to find out what is happening, that doesn't mean we need commentary and analysis from those who are not qualified to give it. The first priority is to tell us what is happening now and back it up with reliable sources. What good does it do to speculate about the meaning of Tamerlan's name, as I painfully watched some do on CNN, before we have any verification of what is happening on the ground? You can give us your commentary after we have the facts. And then you still have to make sure it is well-informed and qualified.

It seems that most headlines today from around the globe describe death, destruction, and violence. It's depressing and frightening that in the 21st century humanity is still so unforgiving. But it’s time we took a more responsible approach to the media, especially in online communities. With everything else, there is no room for discrimination in today’s world.