Our Voice

A year after the Boston Marathon attacks: Holding the media — and ourselves — accountable

Kalia Abiade • Apr 15, 2014

A makeshift memorial for victims near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings. 

“In times of conflict, the media’s responsibility for independent and pluralistic reporting is more important than ever. … In the aftermath of conflict, a free and independent press offers a way out of mistrust and fear into an environment where true dialogue is possible because people can think for themselves and base their opinions on facts.”  — United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, August 2000

In the hours and days after the tragic attacks at the Boston Marathon last year that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others, we watched the people of Boston respond heroically to the terror that struck their city. They were joined by individuals and communities from across the United States and the world who declared themselves #BostonStrong on T-shirts, bumper stickers and social media. This solidarity — through actual hands on deck or in spirit — spanned ages, races, backgrounds and faiths.

Many media outlets worked tirelessly to provide as much thorough, accurate and timely information as possible as the world stood by waiting to hear more. In fact, just yesterday the Boston Globe was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize “for its exhaustive and empathetic coverage” of the bombings and the subsequent search for the suspects.

At the same time, we also witnessed several media organizations, blogs, websites and social media outlets become the platforms for irresponsible reporting, abject speculation and plain rumors as the result of negligence or outright bias and bigotry.

Here are just a few of the most egregious errors that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the bombings:

  • False flag accusations in which commentators accused the U.S. government of conspiring to attack the marathon.
  • Conspiracy theories that a Saudi national seen at the event was responsible for the attacks. In actuality, he was a victim and is now suing Glenn Beck in a defamation case.
  • Speculation that a missing Brown University student was a suspect in the bombings, highlighting the dangers of “crowdsourced investigations” on social media sites. He was found dead later that month.
  • Accusations that two marathon spectators were responsible for the attacks. The New York Post featured them on the front page under the headline “Bag Men,” indicating that officials were seeking them. The pair was never the subject of investigation and are now suing the Post in a libel case.
  • Communication of unspecific information about the suspects that do not help an investigation but do feed into stereotypes. Case in point: CNN’s John King reported that authorities were seeking “dark skinned men.”

As stated in the quote above by Kofi Annan, it is during times of crisis that media outlets must be their most reliable and trustworthy. And as social media continues to evolve and the lines between news producer and consumer become increasingly blurred, we all share in the responsibility of upholding classic journalism standards. Whether writing original content or (re)tweeting, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Information that is shared must be truthful, accurate and shared in context.
  • Multiple sources should be consulted to verify information and ensure fairness.
  • News outlets must clearly distinguish between fact and commentary.
  • Media professionals — and casual social media users — must be accountable for the information they share and be willing to admit when they are wrong.
  • Journalists — professional and otherwise — must be sure to minimize the potential harm inflicted and uphold the humanity of all sources, subjects and audiences.

A strong democracy depends on the existence and vitality of a strong, independent media and a well-informed public. Even when trying to keep pace with the modern-day, round-the-clock, news cycle, we must all be mindful of the way we share information, especially during times of fear and uncertainty. With so much on the line, it’s an obligation on us all.

Imagine 2050 Newsletter

  • translate

    English • Afrikaans • العربية • Беларуская • Български • Català • Česky • Cymraeg • Dansk • Deutsch • Eesti • Ελληνικά • Español • فارسی • Français • Gaeilge • Galego • हिन्दी • Hrvatski • Bahasa Indonesia • Íslenska • Italiano • עברית • Latviešu • Lietuvių • 한국어 • Magyar • Македонски • മലയാളം • Malti • Nederlands • 日本語 • Norsk (Bokmål) • Polski • Português • Română • Русский • Slovenčina • Slovenščina • Shqip • Srpski • Suomi • Svenska • Kiswahili • ไทย • Tagalog • Türkçe • Українська • Tiếng Việt • ייִדיש. • 中文 / 漢語