A harrowing event such as the one that took place yesterday at the Boston Marathon teaches us lessons in the strength and resolve of the human condition, and our ability to unite in the face of tragedy; but it also provides a primer in media responsibility and the impact that hasty reporting has on a news story. I’ve touched on this topic before, but the tragic happenings in Boston have reignited the debate of what role the media should play in reporting, when often times they hold the power to serve as judge and jury in the eyes of the public.
Thankfully, early reports have shown that social media users and the media alike have exercised caution, and are allowing evidence to filter through proper channels before errantly broadcasting it. At this point, much of what we know can only amount to speculation, such as the ongoing search for suspects, which has led authorities to the apartment of a Saudi national who is being viewed as a ‘lead’ in the manhunt. While unnamed sources and backchannels could be utilized to identify the resident of the apartment, news outlets are using an appropriate level of restraint and allowing the story to develop on its own.
As an Atlanta, Georgia native, I naturally draw similarities between Monday’s atrocity and the 1996 Centennial Park bombing, and cannot help but think that Richard Jewell would’ve benefited from this same careful approach by the media. Jewell, a police officer working the Olympics as a security officer, discovered an explosive device under a bench and alerted authorities and began clearing the area. Initially heralded as a hero who prevented further casualties, an FBI leak to the media indicated that Jewell was being investigated as a possible suspect in the bombing.
This was the end of Jewell’s life as he knew it.
The court of public opinion had condemned Jewell, labeled him a lone wolf who planted the bomb on his own so he could discover it and brand himself a hero. Although exonerated later that year, Jewell was haunted by the bombing accusations for the remainder of his life, until he passed away at the young age of 44 in 2007. Even posthumously, Jewell will be forever connected to the Atlanta bombings in 1996, and illustrated as a cautionary tale to the media who desire to be the first to break a story.
The national media has done a superlative job covering the Boston Marathon bombing, and have appeared quick to vet any tips for validity which may cross their news desks. Media outlets exist to provide information to the public, not to influence legal proceedings or investigations. When the two become interwoven, we run the risk of encountering another Richard Jewell scenario.
Bostonians have proven time and time again that they are a resolute people, and this is evidenced by the videos and images of bystanders running toward the blasts to assist any way they can. We will continue to keep the City of Boston in our thoughts and prayers as they continue to move forward from this horrific event.