When I heard my phone buzz with a text message alert on Monday afternoon, I assumed it had something to do with the Red Sox. The team had pulled out a dramatic win over the Tampa Bay Rays in its annual Patriots’ Day game.
I was right; the text was from my brother Pat, a fellow Sox fan. But unfortunately, it involved drama of a much different, much more serious kind.
“Turn on ESPN – two explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line.”
My eventual response was, “Wow.” It was all I could piece together. This wasn’t supposed to happen in Boston; not on Patriots’ Day. For those who haven’t experienced it, Patriots’ Day is a holiday celebrated in Massachusetts to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord. The Sox usually play a game at 11 a.m. that coincides with the Boston Marathon. It’s basically an all-day celebration.
Not this year.
For something so terrible to happen on the same streets where Pat and I celebrated after the 2004 and 2007 World Series championships was unthinkable. I had the same immediate reaction 11 years ago when another city close to my heart was hit with a terrorist attack: shock and disbelief.
Just like on Sept. 11, news of what happened traveled at lightning speed, and people scrambled to get in touch with anyone they knew who was in the area. And just like on 9/11, people immediately became angry. They wanted to know more about what happened.
So, unlike in 2001, people immediately turned to social media. Let’s face it; we’re in an age where news is broken on Twitter and Facebook. When the northeast experienced a rare earthquake in 2010, I went to Twitter to verify the cause of the mild tremors we felt in my office complex.
Information spreads like wildfire on social media sites — unfortunately, it isn’t always accurate. On Monday, early news reports that erroneously linked a fire in the John F. Kennedy Library to the bombings and identified a Saudi Arabian national as being behind the attacks were instantaneously shared on Facebook and retweeted. And although eventually both were found to incorrect, the damage had already been done.
It seems that in the age of information, the emphasis among most media outlets is on breaking a story — not on getting the facts right. Reporters and news anchors love to say, “You heard it here first,” but maybe, just maybe, it shouldn’t be about that. I can’t count how many times I’ve read on sports websites that a player has been traded, only to find out that the deal wasn’t finalized.
But that’s small potatoes compared to what happened a few months ago, when it was revealed that the inspirational story of a college football player who carried his team to a national title game while dealing with his girlfriend’s death had some serious holes. For one thing, she never existed. Yet still, Sports Illustrated, CBS, ESPN, the Los Angeles Times, and other major outlets followed the story for months without actually verifying that the girl did actually die of cancer. The whole thing turned out to be a hoax.
But the truly disturbing part is that not one news outlet bothered to check the facts; instead, they wanted to provide their own spin on the heartbreaking tale of Manti Te’O, which was sure to attract viewers and readers. Perhaps the worst offender was the New York Times, who identified the non-existent girl as a “Stanford alumnus.”
With all the resources available, would it really have been too difficult for reporters from national newspapers, magazines, and TV stations to check the Social Security Administration records — or even search for an obituary? The reporters at Deadspin who broke the story about the hoax did so after doing a great deal of research. Is it too much to ask that the New York Times and Sports Illustrated do the same before firing off Tweets?
Obviously, reports of players being traded and even bizarre stories like the one involving Te’O pale in comparison to posting inaccurate information about something as serious as the bombings in Boston. But maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. Maybe all of us in the media need to slow down and do some fact-checking before running with a story.
Because sadly, we have enough real tragedies to deal with.