“stir up the animals” the role of media in terrorist suspects

Today we discussed the role of the media in light of the Boston Marathon bombings (full disclosure, my husband works in Boston. His office is feet from the finish line, which is now a crime scene, so Tuesday was a rough day to teach.  I find that coming to the classroom helps me process, and I find such joy here).

One student noted that it was irresponsible for the media to release suspect ethnicities and possibly incite hatred until the facts were correct.  This marries with our recent discussion of Hearst and Pulitzer and yellow journalism and muckraking.


As I drove to work the DJs were screaming.  I was tuned to a station coming out of South Carolina and a woman was accusing the DJ of hate mongering as the DJ was repeating news he heard on CNN about the ethic background of a suspect.  The DJ yelled that he was simply repeating what CNN said.

It is notable that The FBI made no mention of the men’s height, weight or age range and would not discuss the men’s ethnicity. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the ethnicity of the men because it could lead people down the wrong path potentially,” said FBI agent Greg Comcowich, a spokesman for the Boston FBI office.

Yet, a source confirmed to FoxNews.com on Tuesday April 16th that “the person of interest is a 20-year-old Saudi. His Facebook page identifies him as a current or former student at the New England School of English. He is believed to have entered the country on a student visa. The source stressed that Alharbi is a person of interest, not a suspect, and said he suffered serious injuries in the explosion.”

Damage done.  Posts on the website FrontPageMag include comments inciting hatred against Saudi Arabians.

The problem is that in the digital age, you can’t take back an accusation.  One false bit of information on a media outlet is repeated on blogs and facebook and twitter until it becomes the Truth.  When an apology is made or a retraction, it does not filter down to those levels. The original supposition remains true in many eyes.

I’ve always put muckrakers on a pedestal.  I believe in the media as the 4th estate and as blogs as the 5th estate.  We hold the powerful accountable.  We help break news, but we should not be making the news. One famous quote is that reporters are the only people other than emergency responders who run towards the crises. But, in the urgency to report, to scoop, to inform are we doing a disservice to say “It is believed that….”

So, what does the media do?  Do we wait until all sources are verified?  Roosevelt tempered his praise for muckrakers with this. “Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.”

Mencken was famous for wanting to “stir up the animals” and he said that “a newspaper should tell the truth, however unpleasant.”  Agreed, but when does the truth become the truth and not speculation? Can we harm an individual or group by releasing speculation and can we harm an individual or group but withholding speculation?


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