By Sally Kohn
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, witnesses described the chaos at the finish line, where thousands of bystanders fled away from the blasts as first responders did the opposite—running toward the smoke and destruction with brave determination. Several people compared the police and medics to salmon swimming upstream, against the tide of the crowds. This is what public service and leadership looks like—and it is a lesson the news media would be wise to learn.
It’s trendy to praise the democratization of media via the Internet as harnessing “the wisdom of crowds.” But this time, the crowds were dumb. Clouded by biases, CSI-wannabes deluged the Internet with pictures from the marathon marked up with theories about suspects. Those theories were too often based on pernicious assumptions about race and ethnicity. In one of the most widely circulated collection of images, a young man was singled out as a suspect because he was wearing a backpack, alone and brown. On the image, posted on 4chan, “alone” and “brown” were written in all caps. Subsequently, the website Reddit wrongly fingered a missing South Asian student from Brown University as the suspect—for which they, rightfully, later apologized.