Aside from raw numbers and raw footage, we don’t seem to know much about what happened in Boston today. In a way, that’s the hardest part – fear, worry, hatred, and anger are well versed in sweeping in to fill the void left in front of unanswered questions. “Why?” is a headline that has been used more than once today – less a headline than a guttural reflection of a collective feeling.
Maybe the only unanswered question more powerful than “Why?” is “Who?” Who did it, and, more importantly, who is safe and who is not. To that end, technology has had some profound and comforting effects. Shortly after the bombs in Boston went off, Google had their Person Finder service up and running. The service is a simple way to search for names of those feared effected by the bombing (or by any other such event), and immediately see either messages those people have posted, or confirmation of their status – anything that shows they’re safe. On the other end, people can upload information about anyone to show the status of themselves or someone they know.
Usually, instant gratification, when applied wholesale to modern, information age culture, is not meant to be a positive term. And, maybe it is a negative thing, for the most part. But, nothing is ever absolute, and if instant access to technology can grant us the instant gratification of knowing that a friend, or a father, or a daughter is safe, then maybe all the negative parts aren’t so bad.
Still, caution is necessary. Those unanswered questions are powerful, and the desire for instant gratification is high, especially when that has become the norm for news. That’s why a tweet from Piers Morgan today is so fascinating, on a cultural level –
Extraordinary that we still don’t seem to have a clue who did it, or why.
Morgan is saying what millions of others, in some form, are thinking, but it strikes as something very much born of this age. Crude bombs were detonated, and there were no clear suspects at the scene, and no individual or group taking responsibility. For all our advances in technology, criminal investigations can only move as fast as the men and women performing them. It’s this sentiment – how, in a world of the 24/7 news cycle, do we not know such central pieces of information – that we need to be careful with.
That goes for the public, but even more so for the media. You can find plenty of Facebook posts and tweets with people spouting off bizarre conspiracies, launching racist tirades, and, fortunately and thankfully, leaving heartfelt, comforting messages to those affected. For all of social media’s immediacy and impact, it’s still not different in any meaningful way from going out on the street and asking for opinions. The means of communication have changed, but people, with all their virtues and flaws, are still people.
It’s the media that needs to be most careful at a time like this. In the wake of the bombings, news came out hard and fast, and that’s not without problems. Erroneous reports came out about many details, including a separate fire at the Boston JFK library (reported by some outlets to be another bomb, but was later reported as a separate, accidental incident). But maybe it was related? That’s the concerning part. Once the initial idea is planted, it’s impossible to completely uproot. Conflicting information isn’t a problem solved with a correction. It spreads, it misinforms, and it confounds. As a result, we’re less sure of what to believe, and that leaves us with more unanswered questions than we should have.
News reporting probably isn’t ever going to become any slower or more ponderous, but maybe it should. Maybe it needs to. Conflicting information affects the way millions perceive the media. It’s interpreted in as many different ways as there are people, but the end result is often the same – diminished trust in what the news tells us. Leading news organizations would do well to recognize this, and maybe slow down a little. Get things right. Otherwise, we’ll be left with more and more unanswered questions. Sometimes, those have more destructive power than bombs themselves.