Boston Marathon Bombings: Get it first or get it right?

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Earlier today there was a huge breakthrough in the search for the Boston Marathon bombers. The hunt for the two suspected men flared into a violent police shootout in Watertown, Massachusetts - one suspect was killed, while the other fled the scene. 

Since the terrible atrocities on Monday afternoon, rumour and speculation have run rife on the web - it's only natural, people wanted answers and they wanted them quickly. 

It wasn't until two days later though that we were led to believe there was the first real break in the Boston Marathon bombing case, as many major news networks announced that an arrest had been made. However, as quickly as the news was released we were told it was misinformation - the online frenzy it caused only highlighted how news organisations clamber over each other to report breaking news under severe competitive pressure - which begs the question: Get it first or get it right?

The incident we're talking about happened on Wednesday afternoon as CNN inaccurately reported that the FBI had made an arrest in relation to the case. 

It didn't take long for the social media networks, particularly Twitter, to stoke the flames. Nobody wanted to be late to the party, so thousands of people began sharing the news. FoxNews.com was one of those on board - which only added to the confusion. 

Twitter was consumed by confusion - bursting with conflicting information about whether the FBI had anyone in custody or not. The FBI responded by releasing a statement begging the media to "exercise caution."

Exactly the same thing happened immediately after the bombings, when reports surfaced that authorities had wounded a Saudi national and had him in custody. #Saudi instantly began trending on Twitter, however reports later confirmed that the police did question a man but he was never a suspect.

Many people tweeted asking why it was taking so long to find the men responsible, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had this to say:

“The investigation is proceeding apace and this is not an episode of NCIS. Sometimes you have to take time to properly put the chain together to identify perpetrators, but everyone is committed to seeing that it gets done the right way.”

David Rubin, Professor and Dean Emeritus at Newhouse School of Public Communications spoke to NewsChannel 9 this week about this very topic and had some wise words:

“Speed has always been one measure of quality in the media, but it shouldn’t be. Speed is almost always a dangerous trap and Twitter is a particularly dangerous trap because it doesn't take long for anyone, myself included, to type 140 characters,” 

Rubin went on to say that in a criminal case of this magnitude, it’s best to wait for official word and tweet only then - State Police spokesperson Jack Keller echoed the sentiment:

"We recommend that the public look at those verified sources, whether it's the police, the sheriffs, the known government sites - because that information is going to be verified before it's put out,” 

Only yesterday a teenager was fearing for his life as internet vigilantes wrongly identified him as a suspect in the bombings. A Boston student called Salah Eddin Barhoum was pictured near the finish line with his friend Yassine Zaime wearing baseball caps and carrying backpacks.

The picture was posted on the front page of the New York Post and this set off a chain reaction of speculation as the photos were published on several websites and Twitter users began re-tweeting the pictures as a huge search for the boys began.

Luckily Mr. Barhoum came forward to refute the claims - but has the damage already been done? Will there still be people looking for retribution? Does he now live a life where he has to constantly look over his shoulder?

It's important to remember that emotions run high during that period between such a callous and heinous crime and the confirmation of an arrest. I understand it's easy to release false instruction in an effort to fill the lack of information, but it's vital that we sit back and think about the implications of our actions.

Human beings were killed in this tragedy, many more suffered life-changing injuries and families were ripped apart by the loss of loved ones. Do we really want to ruin even more lives by being reckless with our online updates? A little common sense and restraint is really all that's required.

Post written by Social Media & Content Manager Steven Owens

Paul Shepherd

I've worked in digital communications for around 15 years, and specialised in social media for the past three. Passionate about new technologies, media, and the impact it has on businesses bottom line, I try to bring that passion to every campaign for every brand we work with.