On Information and Tragedy

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It took me a day and a bit to digest all the information concerning the Boston Marathon bombings. During the last 30 hours or so, I read various news sources to keep up with the streaming and constantly updating information. There has been so much information from so many news sources, often with conflicting reports, especially during the first few hours of the explosion. And accordingly so much has changed since I first received the New York Times News Alert on my cell phone about the non-verified reports of two explosions at the popular race.

I was studying at a café here in Montréal when I received the news alert, which prompted me to check my Twitter feed and see the incoming tweets regarding Boston. I definitely did not realize the magnitude of the situation — obviously anyone outside of the immediate aftermath could not at first — and I went on with my books and sipping on much needed coffee. Then, more information became uploaded to news sites and photos were posted. I, with the rest of the world, began to realize the severity of the situation and was horrified to see images of the carnage, some appropriately flagged as graphic content. The pictures of severely injured spectators, many missing limbs, became seared in my head and I had much trouble focusing on my tasks at hand.

A café patron sitting next to me eventually received news of the explosions, and began to chat with me about the situation. The café we were sitting in was mainly quiet, most of us having hauled laptops and books to the neighbourhood outlet, and plugged into our respective ear phones. My seat neighbour dropped his pen and paper, and sat clicking away at various news sites for the rest of his stay. When he was leaving, he said to me, “They found the person who did it. He apparently is in custody.” I cocked my head and said, “Really? I was just checking the news and did not read anything about this.”

I was constantly reading updates on the Boston situation, mainly relying on The New York Times, which put down their pay wall for articles regarding the tragedy for the day, as well as Slate and The Atlantic. There had been one news item that I had read which indicated that “a person of interest” had been spoken to by police at a hospital, and that his apartment had been searched. However, other than that bit piece of information, not much was said about any real suspects. Later, I found out that the New York Post had been maintaining that the “person of interest”, a Saudi student, was a suspect and with reports that he was tackled when seen running away from the explosion. (Um, perhaps because there was an explosion?) The New York Post continued this angle of the foreign student being a possible suspect despite The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Slate, and other news outlets having dismissed the reports. It was only around 3 pm today that the New York Post tweeted that the student was no longer a suspect. A suspect to the bombings has still yet to be identified.

Meanwhile, the Internet has decided that the event is a conspiracy and even planned, with a video juxtaposing two different parts of an episode of The Family Guy to illustrate the conspiracy on YouTube. The episode in question was edited so that it seemed that Peter was using his cell phone to set off bombs at the marathon, causing Fox to pull the episode from the Internet and Seth MacFarlane denying any connection. Gun-loving right-wing person, Alex Jones, is also claiming that this is a government conspiracy.

Additionally, there were reports that another explosion, this time at the John F. Kennedy Library, occurred a few blocks away from the marathon’s sites of bombing. While the two events were first suggested to be related, this was later rebutted by The Boston Police Department who confirmed it was a fire, not an explosion. Furthermore, reports that the government had shut down phone networks was also proven to be false. The problems in connectivity that many people were experiencing following the attacks were later attributed to overloaded local cell towers.

This all made me think about how hard it is to receive accurate and unbiased information, especially during times of crisis. First incoming reports regarding a tragedy may be subject to error — when emotions are high and the dust has literally yet to settle. Keep in mind that the news is coming from reporters, whom are human, whom are prone to failures. At such situations, it is also so easy to jump to conclusions and rely on our prejudices (a Brown man running away from the scene? Stop him!) when we try to make sense of a horrific situation. I am not excusing anyone for racial profiling but I am trying to understand the situation in context of an American culture that still bears the marks of the events and politics surrounding of 9/11.

Another thought that came to mind from this tragedy was how much we trust the information that is presented to us, and what are the sources that we trust. I personally avoid tabloids, New York Post being one, as well as other sources with obvious political agendas. Examples include Fox News and CNN sometimes, as well as the downhill sliding mess here in Canada called The Toronto Star. When a news source seems to lack credibility, whether it is due to the accuracy of their reporting, the injection of bias in their segments, lack of due diligence, or all the above, I lose interest. That said, no one news source is perfectly reliable and perfectly free of bias, but I find the quality of the reporters and their writing to be mainly high and consistent in The New York Times. So I trust The Times as well as Slate for my political news and current events reports, and it should also be noted that neither organization insisted on the Saudi student as a strong suspect unlike the New York Post.

It will be interesting to see how the Boston Marathon tragedy will be played out by the media in time, which I hope will refrain from any unwarranted political posturing. But despite the horrid nature of the situation, I generally have hope in society. We saw it in the huge public response and outpouring of support in the aftermath, with the uninjured rallying to aid the casualties, and members of the Boston community offering food and shelter. The actor Patton Oswalt wrote a Facebook message regarding the incident, and he was right: “The good outnumber you, and always will.”

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