Note: The above picture was a tweet from a fake Twitter account, sent out during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, which was another example of a social media mistake.
The Boston Marathon bombings was a bonanza for mass media, one in which I eagerly participated. While breaking news on Twitter may be questionable, I will point out that my Twitter feed reported Dzhokhar’s arrest a full minute and a half to two minutes before the TV station I was watching, WCVB, did. When social media breaks news that turns out to be true, it doesn't surprise anyone. But it was shocking when Sunil Tripathi, who was identified by Reddit and 4chan after their members spent a lot of time combing through pictures of the bombing, was named as a suspect on the police scanner.
Unfortunately for Tripathi -- who'd been missing since mid-March and was later found dead in a Rhode Island river -- this report was completely false.
This has raised a lot of questions about whether the use of scanner traffic in reporting is good journalistic policy. Curt Atwood wrote a piece at Cognoscenti, arguing strongly that using scanner traffic for journalism is a terrible idea:
"Civilians can be forgiven for not knowing this. But professional journalists? Yikes. If you care about your audience, you don’t report what you hear come over the scanner, [not] without confirming it first."
Sadly, in the insane rush to get the latest information about the Boston manhunt, many in the media tossed this rule overboard. As you might guess, bad things happened.
The example Atwood cites, of Sunil Tripathi, was reported by journalists. Although Alexis Madrigal breaks down this information disaster, I would like to point out two things: One, the information never actually appeared on a police scanner, and, two, the information wasn’t initially disseminated by journalists.
The step that came next in this story's information flow is the trickiest one.
Here's what I know: At 2:42 a.m., Greg Hughes, who had been following the Tripathi rumors, tweeted, "This is the Internet's test of 'be right, not first' with the reporting of this story. So far, people are doing a great job. #Watertown".
Then, at 2:43 a.m., he tweeted, "BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi."
The only problem is that there is no mention of Sunil Tripathi in the audio preceding Hughes' tweet. I've listened to it a dozen times and there's nothing there even remotely resembling Tripathi's name. I've embedded the audio from 2:35 a.m. to 2:45 a.m. for your own inspection. Multiple groups of people have crowdsourced the police scanner logs and chatter, and none of them have found a reference to Tripathi. It's just not there.
From there, it gets picked up by journalists, but they're pulling the information from Twitter, not from the police scanner. The Sunil Tripathi saga is not a lesson in the improper use of police scanners by journalists but the improper use of social media by journalists. If the police were, in fact, looking at these two people and mentioned them on the police scanner, is that not a story? Even though the "Saudi national" didn’t turn out to be anyone significant (and that story may be a lesson about racism), is that not a story?
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but if the police actually said, “We are interested in these people” over the police scanner, then it is true: In such cases, police are, in fact, interested in these people. Journalism begins when you start expanding that fact into a story: Are these people suspects? Why are they interested in them? How relevant is this information to the overall narrative?
I don’t, however, think that means you can’t use police scanners as a source of information, contrary to Atwood's opinion.
James DiGioia is the social media coordinator at the International Business Times. Follow James DiGioia on Twitter: @JamesDiGioia