Telling the Story of Another Patriot’s Day We’ll Never Forget

Patriot’s Day, for baseball fans, means an early start for the Red Sox game. For runners, it means the Boston marathon. The meaning of the holiday -- the commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 -- may have been lost by many of us. But after this past Monday, April 15, 2013 will take on a new, horrific meaning. The Benton Foundation joins the world in condemning the cowardly act that killed and injured scores of people in Boston and we salute the brave people who responded to the explosions with acts of heroism. Sadly, it was just a couple of months ago that we wrote about the connections between media, telecommunications and the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, this week we look at the role of communications in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings.

As we’ve come to expect, almost immediately after the bombings, the city's cellular networks collapsed. As cell service sputtered under a surge of calls, runners were left in the dark, families couldn’t reach loved ones, and even investigators were stymied in making calls related to their pursuit of suspects. Admirably, Boston residents and businesses responded quickly by opening up Wi-Fi hotspots to help evacuees communicate with loved ones. We shouldn't be surprised by the collapse of Boston's cellular networks. The same thing happens every time there is a crisis in a large city. On an average day, Americans make nearly 400,000 emergency 911 calls on their mobile phones. Yet during large-scale crises, this vital lifeline is all too frequently cut off. The culprit is usually congestion. During a disaster, call volumes spike and overwhelm the over-subscribed capacity of wireless carriers' networks.

The loss of vital wireless communications during disasters is all the more dismaying because it is largely preventable. Reforms have been stalled by industry lobbying. Despite our utter dependency on cellular networks, the industry has failed to act substantially to improve the reliability of these systems. While it is one of the most vibrant sectors of the economy and invests tens of billions annually in network expansion, somehow the cost of greater reliability has not been deemed a priority. These companies have sold American consumers a digital lifeline without honoring their responsibility to assure it works at our time of greatest need, writes Anthony Townsend in The Atlantic. The time to stop treating our cellular networks as an afterthought in preparedness, as expendable casualties during crises, is long overdue. In fact, they are the key to getting first responders to where they need to be, and an essential tool for resilient responses by citizens in the hours and days after a major disaster. The cellular industry has enjoyed the benefits (and profits) of access to public radio spectrum. With that access now comes enormous responsibility. We can't afford a communications infrastructure that works only when we don't really need it.

At the Federal Communications Commission’s open meeting on April 18, Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that he had ordered the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to examine the events in Boston that interrupted cellphone service. “It's vital that communications service is available during crises,” he said, “when the need to reach 911, family and friends is the most urgent. For the FCC, this is an institutional imperative." FCC public safety chief David Turetsky added that the investigation is part of the commission's ongoing effort to strengthen network resiliency and reliability in the wake of a disaster and will include steps that carriers and other stakeholders can take as well as ways to improve public outreach and education.

“A good deal of the story of the Boston bombing,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum, “has been as much about how we're telling it as what we know.” She writes that we've proved the perils of micro-reporting — tiny, unverified bursts of information — as an alternative to synthesized, more comprehensive articles. For onlookers of tragedy, there now seems to be a need to be in the mix somehow, a player not just a spectator. The deluge of false information isn't a sign of irresponsibility and impatience as much as a desire not to be left out. But the wave of innuendo has been generated not just by amateurs but by professionals, who are now expected to deliver the play-by-play while they're still figuring out what happened. And like it or not, we're told, this is the direction things are going. And, so, Daum points to a tweet that reads: “Dear Journalism: Get yourself together and report verified facts or don't report anything at all."

It's crucial to get information to the American people, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said April 17, but "it's much more important to make sure we're precise and accurate." On the same day, CNN contributor Fran Townsend said, "I think we need to be, as you know, careful, because initial information can often be wrong.” Unfortunately, writes Rem Rieder in USA Today, their comments came as CNN was in the midst of making yet another high-profile mistake: reporting that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombing. The Associated Press, Fox and the Boston Herald also reported this misinformation.

During a tragedy of this scale, the public is hungry to know what happened. Journalists are competing feverishly to fill out the story, to break news in today's hypercompetitive news environment. But with every instance of incorrect reporting, the mainstream media’s credibility is further eroded. To compound the problem, in this case, rather than saying that it had screwed up big-time, CNN simply said it had "adjusted" as new information became available.

Writing in Politico, James Hohmann called the inaccurate report “arguably one of the most flagrant errors on a story of major national consequence in years.” And when the news organizations later corrected their mistakes, there seemed to be something missing — any big shows of contrition, or even a sense of the magnitude of the error. In a new media era, many journalists — and perhaps many in the audience as well — seem to accept that information on a big story is fluid and fragmentary, and are ready to move on without pausing long for either apology or explanation, other than to blame their sources. Media mistakes are certainly not new, but the lack of apology and remorse is a recent phenomenon.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation scolded several news outlets for mistakenly reporting that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombings, and warned that such unverified reporting could have “unintended consequences” for its investigation. The FBI said: “Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

The New York Post published front-page photos of two men on April 18 who the paper said were being searched for in connection with the Boston bombings. The problem? They were completely innocent. The Post had already been intensely criticized for both saying that many more people had died in the attacks than turned out to be true, and for pointing the finger at a Saudi man who turned out to have nothing to do with them. The teenager pictured on the Post’s front-page now says he’s scared to go outside, convinced some will blame him for the bombings, no matter what. He was so fearful on April 18 that he ran back to the high school after a track meet when he saw a man in a car staring at him, talking into a phone, he said. The young man received more than 200 messages online with one commenter from Oregon asking: “How could you do that? Did you even think about the consequences?” He said he won’t feel safe until the bombers are caught. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum said the New York Post “exhibited reckless and appalling journalistic judgment.”

To journalists’ credit, Chittum highlighted the very good reporting of the events on April 18 when police responded to a robbery and additional killing by the suspected bombers in the Boston area. One bombing suspect was killed while another fled.

Past the capital M media, we noticed a lot about the use of social media by both citizens and government agencies to respond the emergency in Boston. Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA) and some city agencies took to social media to inform citizens of the incident. Twitter spread news of the blasts quickly and was a useful communications tool for public authorities such as the Boston police and the marathon organizers. The Boston Police Department, for instance, said via Twitter that it was looking for video footage from the race's finish line. Google set up a person finder specifically for the Boston Marathon explosions, where anyone who has information related to a found person can enter that information, or anyone looking for a missing person can conduct a search.

But information on social media sites can also be questionable or just plain inaccurate, noted Greg Sterling, senior analyst with Opus Research. "It cuts both ways," Sterling said. "It allows you to get the information out more quickly, but it can also fan hysteria." At one point, a Twitter account with the handle @_BostonMarathon was promising to donate US$1 to victims of the blast for every one of its tweets that was retweeted. Users soon called it out as a fake, noting the real Twitter account for the Boston Marathon was @BostonMarathon. That type of self-correction could be one of social media's strongest assets, said Karsten Weide, an analyst with IDC. There can be a lot of false or misleading content, but the nature of the service means that anyone, regardless of their credentials, can do some fact-checking.

The Boston Police Department’s request for citizen-shot videos points to the ubiquity of smart, camera-enabled phones. Breaking news events are a sea of phones held aloft in the air as lawyers, secretaries, delivery people, and students turn themselves into journalists for 10 or 15 minutes to record the goings-on and upload them to Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook. (YouTube, in fact, launched a Spotlight page in the attack's aftermath.) Once people realized that they had cameras which could instantly transmit pictures or short films to all of their friends--or indeed, to the entire world--culture shifted, just a little.

For law enforcement, access to dozens of on-the-ground videos from a major terrorist attack serves as a valuable forensic tool. Videos were filmed by folks at the finish line who had nothing to do with the media, and were simply taking out their phones or iPads for fun when the attack occurred. They contributed greatly to the potential pool of information for the Boston Police Department and other investigators. Bystanders also posted hundreds of still photographs to Instagram, Imgur, Twitter, and Facebook. Many of these are graphic depictions of attack victims. Several photographers working on Flickr created noteworthy galleries of the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks. Ken Shinokubo and Arturo Gossage both photographed the attack scene and made their pictures accessible through Flickr.

As surveillance technology has spread from security cameras to smartphones in every pocket, it has sparked privacy concerns. At the same time, the technology has proved helpful to criminal investigations. The FBI used surveillance video from a Lord & Taylor department store and restaurants near the bomb site, as well as photographs from average citizens, news organizations and others to help identify a suspicious person at the marathon. The use of such technology in the Boston investigations highlights how, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the adoption of surveillance technology and the amount of data gathered has grown considerably.

As we go to press, one suspected bomber is dead as another is being pursued. But this story and Monday's impact on communications are far from over. Stay safe and we'll see you next week in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.