Rush to judgment
The dramatic end came only four days after the improvised bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three persons and injuring some 180 others—and only a day or so after images of the two bombing suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were circulated widely by the police. The speed by which the case seems to have been resolved is remarkable; however, it also raises uncomfortable questions.
The basic one is truly fundamental: Was there a rush to judgment?
In the chaotic 26 hours or so between the release of the images and the arrest of the lone and bloodied survivor, much of media coverage was driven by official accounts or by anonymous sources in US government agencies. (There was also much chatter on social media and among dedicated amateur detectives online.)
In the chaos of that climactic last day, the primary link between the bombings and the bombing suspects was often either obscured or taken for granted. Corroborating details about the killing of a young police officer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or the carjacking of a sport utility vehicle, came quickly. Reports of the ferocious gun battle between the two brothers in the SUV and pursuing police officers (more improvised bombs were thrown at the police, and some 200 shots were exchanged) were based in part on eyewitness stories. But proof that the authorities had indeed identified the right suspects in the first place came more slowly. In the reporting on the gun battle, or on the second and conclusive encounter with the surviving suspect, the connection to the original bombings was by and large assumed; many news organizations took the authorities at their word.
The conditions that led to the discovery of the suspects have since become clearer; the Washington Post, for instance, has a comprehensive inside look at the police investigation, which reveals both the possibilities (the search was narrowed down to the two brothers after extensive review of video footage) and the limits (facial recognition software was unable to name either suspect) of technology. Corroboration of the role of one of the suspects was most convincingly made the old-fashioned way, when one of the blast victims, now a double amputee, “managed to eke out a request for pen and paper” and then wrote: “Bag. Saw the guy, looked right at me.”
In other words, the connection between the bombings and the suspected bombers was much stronger than it seemed; the evidence was “highly incriminating,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is quoted as saying in the Post report after the arrest of the surviving suspect—“a lot more than the public knows.”
Not only did the authorities do their homework; they did the right kind of homework. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the parallel crowd-sourced investigation that netizens conducted online. Using guesswork amplified by technological gee-whizzery, many attempted to pinpoint the actual location of the bombs or, more consequentially, identify possible suspects—with terrible results.
“There was at least one prominent case of mistaken identity late on Thursday and early on Friday: Some users of Twitter, Reddit and other sites homed in on the visual similarities between a Brown University student reported missing in March and one of the suspects identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),” the New York Times reported. “For a time, the student’s name was trending nationwide on Twitter. But reporters, relying on law enforcement sources, shot down the suggestion that the student was a suspect.”
It wasn’t only netizens who rushed to judgment; the mainstream media did too. A day before the authorities released the images of the two suspects, CNN broke the news that a suspect in the bombings had been arrested; the Associated Press and the Boston Globe (which otherwise had done excellent work covering the weeklong crisis) followed with their own reports. They were all wrong. Most egregiously, the New York Post exaggerated the death toll from the bombings and identified the wrong persons as the alleged bombers.
Sometimes, it’s very hard to tell the adrenaline rush of getting the story first, or the angle right, from the rush to judgment.