Last week was a lesson in the power of social media and how it can expose truths and help perpetuate falsehoods at the same speed.
News of explosions at the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured more than 180, went viral and investigators quickly appealed to the public for pictures and videos from the area that might have helped identify the suspects.
Amateur sleuths on the popular website Reddit jumped on the opportunity to help identify the two suspects after the FBI released photos of them.
Reddit got it wrong and “identified” an innocent man as the perpetrator.
Several major news outlets—including CNN and the Associated Press—also got it wrong when they prematurely reported that an arrest had been made in the case. Once again, in the race to break the news, a few organizations jumped the gun.
The FBI was not happy.
“Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting,” the FBI said in a statement on its website.
The suspects have now been identified as two brothers, one of whom was killed during a confrontation with police and the other, currently in custody and hospitalized with a gun wound to the neck.
There are already conspiracy theories brewing about what actually happened, but it’s important not to jump to conclusions. We should treat both the investigation and the conspiracy theories with skepticism.
Undoubtedly, citizen journalism can be used for the greater good.
Bostonians recently banded together to catch a criminal. They were each armed with the only weapons necessary to protect themselves: a smartphone, an iPad or a camera. Within hours, photographs of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, were widely circulated. People were blogging, tweeting and writing about the two brothers.
There was hardly a person around who didn’t know what the two suspected terrorists looked like. It eventually led to their capture. People slept more soundly that evening.
What if this type of technology was around on Nov. 22, 1963 when JFK was fatally shot while riding in his motorcade? Would pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald have been circulating on Facebook?
Would we have hard evidence, such as a photograph or video, of Oswald firing his weapon from the book depository? Would we have been able to dispel the theory that Oswald was acting in concert with others?
The future of citizen journalism is unclear. How the media will continue to evolve and use the power of social media wisely is still unfolding.
Journalists live by a code of ethics grounded in transparency. They should seek truth and report it, minimize harm to others, act independently and, arguably the most important part, be accountable.
Being the first to break a news story means nothing unless it is fact-checked and grounded in solid evidence.
Both professional and citizen reporters need to keep this guiding principle in mind. People’s lives and reputations count on it.