21 April 2013 Ideas

In Boston, real reporting falls prey to hysteria

The ferocious zeal with which news organisations have tried to piece together an explanation for the Boston Marathon bombing is astounding. Tripping over conflicting reports in a rush to break the story first, they appear to have done more harm than good.

Mere moments after the explosions, we all began searching for answers. Who, what, why, how? A mad scramble for leads began. False accusations were trumpeted from millions of TV screens, adding tragedy to tragedy as families of the wrongfully accused were torn apart. We saw the same thing happen in the wake of the Newtown shooting just a few months ago. The bigger the story, the more fact-checking gives way to sensationalism.

At this stage, journalists don’t know what evidence the FBI and police have collected. In the absence of material facts, the news stories of the last few days have become little more than thinly-disguised speculation.

Before charges were even laid, never mind a guilty verdict, family and friends were asked to publicly judge the suspects’ character. Dogged journalists dug up hobbies, school records, past feuds and misdemeanours, to paint a detailed, if mostly irrelevant picture of the suspects.

I don’t much care what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wore to his high school prom. Nor do I think that his mother’s run-in with the law for shoplifting has much bearing on the marathon bombings. If a nation full of journalists were desperate for an excuse to incriminate me and my family, I’m sure they would dig up some dirt too.

The story has now shifted: no longer focused on the tragedy of the bombing and how it came to pass, the media is left to pick apart the facts that are not protected by the confidentiality of an ongoing investigation. Somehow, in the frenzy, reporters have become no better than tabloid paparazzi, trying to peer into the private lives of the Tsarnaev brothers and their families.

In an age of instantaneous communication, it is not a mark of strength to be the first to scramble out of the gate. Real strength lies in the ability to set a story aside when you have nothing new to reveal.

Sam Nabi

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