Crisis Reporting In The Age Of New Media — One Year After The Marathon Bombings

Download Audio
A resident records the scene around Norfolk Street in Cambridge, April 19, 2013 as authorities search for Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A resident records the scene around Norfolk Street in Cambridge, April 19, 2013 as authorities search for Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

It was almost one year ago that two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring scores of bystanders.

Coverage of that crisis and the fast-moving events that followed revealed the speed at which we now gather information.

It also revealed some of the challenges of journalism in the digital age.

There was chaos on Twitter, vigilante justice on Reddit and rumors reported as fact by major news outlets. Two days after the bombs went off, CNN mistakenly reported that authorities had arrested a suspect.

"We have information. One of our sources is from our national security contributor, Fran Townsend," said John King. "One source is a Boston law enforcement source who tells me that an arrest has been made."

That was wrong. The rumor knocked many news organizations momentarily off course, including this one. But Twitter and Facebook were also brimming with messages of prayer, hope and safety. And when police finally did capture a suspect, many of us heard about it first on Twitter.

So, as we approach the anniversary of the bombings, what have we learned about crisis reporting in this age of new media? And what about how it affects the way we understand today what happened one year ago?


David Abel, staff writer at The Boston Globe, former Nieman fellow, marathon runner. He tweets at @davabel.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab. Contributor at Global Voices. Senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of "Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection." He tweets at @EthanZ.


On gathering information right off the bat at the Boston Marathon finish line:
David Abel: "For me, unlike most stories where you're reporting from a second point of view, I was actually witnessing the story itself and so I was actually on the finish line making a film, I was preparing for the subject of my film, who was one of the first dwarfs to run the Boston Marathon, to finish her race. And I was standing there with a video camera waiting for her to make that turn from Hereford Street onto Boylston, when suddenly the bombs went off. I had to make a lot of decisions right there, and the first decision was to turn the camera on and to document what was happening. So, from my point of view, I was in a unusual role for a reporter where I was directly experiencing the event that was happening and covered it while it was unfolding."

On the way information was disseminated after the Marathon bombings:
DA: "There were a number of lessons. Among the chief ones for me was, not to shill here for my newspaper, but I think what I felt, and I think a lot of people saw, was the value of The Boston Globe, a newspaper that can take some time to really delve deeply into the details and wait a little bit before reporting instantaneously on what's happening. Of course there's a balance, and I lived that balance where I actually had to call in the story while I was experiencing what was happening. While I was witnessing what happened I also did not have all of the information, so I was witnessing something that looked in some ways far more horrific than it actually turned out to be in terms of at least the death toll. And it was incumbent upon me and the people who were there, reporting from the scene, to hedge what we were saying because in the literal smoke of what we were seeing, we could only know so much. Even though we were witnessing something, we could only ascertain what it was that we could see, also knowing that what we could see was not going to be the final and full truth."

On whether new media is helping us by creating a world of 'citizen journalists':
Ethan Zuckerman: "We have to be careful not to demonize the tools. Dave just made the point that Twitter got used very, very poorly in some cases around the Boston bombing, there's other cases where it was used really, really well. We were talking before we got on the air about Seth Mnookin, who did a great job of reporting on the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers in Watertown coming out via Twitter. But he was doing it in a way where he was very clear about what he actually knew and saw and what he was hearing and what was speculation. Where Twitter's really important, where Facebook is really important, is where we don't have the luxury of having incredible professionals like David Abel who can get to the scene. When you're in a situation like Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, where you have events that very quickly move to change the world, but the only people who actually are able to see them are citizens who are documenting them. I'm in favor of people using media responsibly, both as creators and users of media. We can talk about whether Seth Mnookin's science journalism training prepared him to be a Twitter superstar, I think he would tell you that's a very different set of reporting than he normally does. And we also know that there were not all professional journalists who came out of the marathon experience looking like they were doing a very professional job."

On vigilante justice through social media after the Marathon bombings:
EZ: "The amateur sleuthing by Reddit was an enormous problem. It was incredibly unfair to Sunil Tripathy and to his family and I don't think anyone wants to defend what folks at Reddit ended up doing. And I do think there's a sense in which the community has learned its lesson to some extent. There have been subsequent instances where people have said, 'Maybe we can lend a hand on this,' and people have had the very helpful reminder that there's a real danger in calling out people who were not involved with the bombing. At the same time, let's be really clear, it wasn't just Reddit that got it wrong. The New York Post put on their front cover, under the headline 'Bag Men,' two Moroccan runners who had come hoping to enter the race, not knowing how difficult it is to enter ahead of time, but had basically put together the idea that the FBI might be looking for these guys, speculating that the bag contained a bomb and ended up being sued for libel. So, in the moment where people are trying to figure out what immediately happened, people definitely do get things wrong. One of the things I would just point out is what happened with Reddit was a whole lot of people who wanted to try to figure out something that they could do in the wake of the bombing. And one of the things that was really interesting about the Marathon bombing is that the Boston community reacted with such incredible support for people involved, that the Red Cross did something I've literally never seen them do. Within 12 hours after the bombing they had put a notice on their website asking people not to come and donate blood and actually to stop donating money specific to the bombing. And I think we actually ended up in this really interesting situation where people wanted to lend a hand, they wanted to think about what to do. On Reddit, they found something really bad and really unhelpful to do, but it is an interesting reminder that we have to think about, how do people help in situations like this?"


WBUR: Why I Run

  • "What does it take to compete in the Boston Marathon? And why do people do it? Whether you're in it to win or just to finish, whether you're doing it for your health, a cause, a loved one, or to reclaim the race after last year's tragic ending, we want to hear about it."

Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive & WBUR Oral History Project

  • "The Boston Marathon is woven into the fabric of our community: it brings together runners from around the world, spectators, family members, and neighbors, forging a river of people stretching from Hopkinton to downtown Boston. The April 15, 2013 bombing at the marathon finish line aimed to destroy that fabric. We invite you to help mend and strengthen the fabric of our community by contributing your stories and media from the week of April 15 in Boston."

Technology Review: Preventing Misinformation From Spreading Through Social Media

  • "'The underlying problem is a fearsome one—people want to share and spread information, whether accurate or not,' says Ethan Zuckerman, who directs the center for civic media at MIT. 'We’re very far from a solution. The reporting around the Marathon bombing demonstrates that mainstream media has issues with verification that are as profound as anything we face online.'"

Nieman Reports: A Marathon Without A Finish

  • "All of a sudden, I heard a massive boom. I felt the ground shake, and saw the plume of white smoke rising from the sidewalk. Then I heard the second explosion. My first instinct was to try to figure out what was happening. It only took a few seconds to realize that it was an attack. I saw all the carnage afterward, and I will have these memories seared into my brain. It was some of the worst things I've ever seen. I just picked up the camera and continued recording, to document what we were witnessing."

This segment aired on April 7, 2014.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live