Last night, while running a live-Slog of the coverage of the Watertown firefight and the ongoing pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, I had to make a number of decisions about what to run and what not to run. When you're this far away from a breaking news story, that's basically all that this meta-coverage is: Determining what's trustworthy and what's not, and publishing the information that you determine to be accurate. During the live-Slog, I included information that someone on the Boston Police scanner was said to have mentioned the name of a Brown University student who disappeared a month ago. I also included links to an online amateur detective investigation into theories about that student's involvement in the bombing. (Here's an apology from one of the moderators of that thread.) Despite mentions by reputable sources on Twitter, it seems that the student's name was never on the scanner; for information about what really happened, check out Alexis C. Madrigal's great story in The Atlantic.
I didn't accuse the student of committing the bombing. I didn't even say that the student was the suspect. I pointed out that he was trending on Twitter and included all the information that I had at hand. This was something that happened all over the internet; Gawker said that "it increasingly looks like" this student is the suspect. And a very Twitter-friendly reporter went so far as to publish a tweet that read something like "It is [student's name]." That reporter apparently then deleted the tweet and, a few minutes later, published a story excoriating the press for IDing the wrong student. I don't include these other examples to exonerate myself of making a decision; I made the decision.
People want to blame Twitter for mistakes like this, but this sort of thing has happened before the internet became a news source, and it will doubtlessly happen again. Do I wish the student's name never became involved with the situation? Absolutely. And if I knew then what I know now, of course I wouldn't have run the information. And I apologize to the family for being a part of the wave of misinformation that consumed their search for their missing loved one. I can't imagine the pain and heartbreak that this situation has caused for them. I hope that, if something good can come out of all this, it's that the increased visibility will result in someone finding their lost family member.
But I do believe that the student's name was news last night, during the manhunt. One of the most useful things about the internet is that you can instantaneously take a snapshot of what a significant number of human beings are thinking about at any given moment, without having them, say, physically assemble for a protest. In times like this, that's news. For a few hours last night, right or wrong, that student's name was news. One day, there will be another situation like this. And the news provides a precedent; it's how we hold onto memories of traumatic times. Maybe the next time someone decides to crowdsource a police investigation, the story of this student will give more of the amateur detectives pause. But for that to happen, the story of this mistake has to be disseminated. It's an imperfect process, but it's the process that we've got.