6. Poisoning the Well

In April 2013, Sunil Tripathi was wrongfully accused of being “suspect number two” in the Boston Marathon bombing. His accusers were Reddit and Twitter users who spread false information and conjecture that implicated an innocent man all with a few clicks of a mouse. This vigilante digital investigation wasn’t undertaken only by conspiracy theorists and teenagers in their parents’ basements. If that were the case then Tripathi’s family might have been spared the suffering and heartache of having their already missing son propelled to villain status. But when respected media outlets began spreading the false information as well, they legitimized the suspect information and poisoned the well of information at the early stages of a breaking news story.

Three days after blasts rocked the Boston Marathon on April 15, Boston police released photos of the suspects accused of the terrorist act. Almost instantaneously, Reddit users began comparing the grainy police photos with pictures of Sunil Tripathi sourced from a Facebook page titled, “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi.” Working with the FBI, Brown University and an organization that helps locate missing persons, the Tripathi family had been working doggedly to locate their son, Sunil, who had gone missing a month prior. They created the Facebook page with the hope that loving messages posted on the page would encourage Sunil, who suffered from depression, to return home. One Reddit user compared Sunil’s picture to one of the suspects who later turned out to be one of the bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Questions surrounding Tripathis disappearance flooded the Reddit forum. Why was the FBI looking for this guy? Why is he missing? Angry and threatening messages began pouring into the Facebook group from Internet sleuths convinced that Sunil was the bomber. The harassing posts forced the Tripathi’s to shut down the page lest Sunil would see the messages and decide to harm himself. The family shut down the page at 11 p.m.

Prominent news figures picked up on the page deletion and began speculating about Sunil’s guilt. Since the family shut down the page, they must have seen their son in the picture, the logic went. This was amplified when unverified accounts of Sunil’s name being broadcast on Boston Police scanners were retweeted by a Buzzfeed reporter, Anonymous and NBC’s Luke Russert, reaching millions of followers. Members of Sunil’s family received a deluge of phone calls in the early morning hours of April 16 from journalists looking for a statement and to answer questions about the murky reasons for their son’s disappearance.

Around 5 a.m. on April 16 NBC confirmed Sunil Tripathi was not a suspect in the bombing. The damage, though, had been done. The agonizing search for Sunil by his family ground to a halt because of unverified, false and accusatory information peddled by digital vigilantes and legitimized by respected journalists and media outlets. A few weeks later, on April 23, authorities pulled Sunil Tripathi’s lifeless body from the Providence River. [1]

This case cases demonstrates the devastating consequences can occur when media rushes to a conclusion based on an unverified source of information. The Columbia Journalism Review published a piece that reads, “When the media circulates unverified claims from such sources—like a mistaken report about the names of the suspects—it gives them additional credibility and spreads them to a wider audience. Acting as a conduit for unverified information is an act of journalistic irresponsibility.” [3] The Verification Handbook warns that journalists should never assume that otherwise credible sources such as witnesses or authorities provide accurate information as “ firsthand accounts can be inaccurate or manipulative, fueled by emotion or shaped by faulty memory or limited perspective.” [4]

Since the National Post is a major Canadian publication, it automatically adds credibility and weight to whatever information it decides to publish. This is what editors would have to consider when deciding whether to attribute the picture to Justin Bourque. This is why verification is such a crucial aspect when news outlets decide to post suspect information. Once it is out there, the information’s veracity is taken for granted.

When the National Post editors were in the process of determining whether they should include Bourque’s picture, they would have to weigh whether the risk of posting the picture in the name of public interest would be worth it. Would they be helping to keep the public safe and help police catch a killer or would they be implicating an innocent person? As per NPR’s Ethics Handbook regarding social media, journalists should always ask themselves, “Am I about to spread a thinly sourced rumor or am I passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats?” [5]

[1] Jay Caspian Kang, “Should Reddit be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?,” The New York Times Magazine, July 25, 2013.

[2] Jeff Sonderman, “News orgs circulate Facebook profile, photos of man who wasn’t the shooter,” Poynter, Dec. 14 2012.

[3] Brendan Nyhan, “Fast and Wrong Beats Slow and Right,” Columbia Journalism Review, Apr. 22 2013.

[4] Craig Silverman and Rina Tsubaki, “Creating a Verification Process and Checklist(s),” in Verification Handbook: a definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage, ed. Craig Silverman (Maastricht, Netherlands: European Journalism Centre, 2014), 97.

[5] NPR, “Social Media” in NPR Ethics Handbook, (Washington: 2012).

Next: 7. Balancing Immediacy and Verification