Rumour, speculation and gossip: Twitter does its bit for bomb investigation
What's the latest on the bombing? Is it three dead? Or fifteen? Or thirty-three?
It depends on which paper or website you're reading. If you're following Twitter or the main news sites, the answer is still three - one of them Martin Richard, an eight-year-old boy who had run to hug his father as he completed the Boston marathon.
If you look a little further south to Iraq, the answer is that at least 33 are thought to have been killed in car bombings in Kirkuk (main picture) and Baghdad at about the same time as the Boston blasts yesterday. Again, there is little information about the victims.
Why, then, the heavy emphasis on Boston - especially when statistics suggest that around 80 Americans will have died of gunshot wounds yesterday? Is it somehow a greater atrocity? And if not, why is it a bigger news story?
These are, of course, rhetorical questions. Bombings in America are rare, in the Middle East they are a regular occurrence. We know that the attacks in Syria and Iraq were politically motivated and carefully targeted. We're all still fretting about the who, what and why of Boston. Al Qaeda? A lone maniac? Someone somehow linked to the threat from North Korea? A gun fanatic angered beyond all sense by suggestions of curbs after the Sandy Hook shootings? (The last stretch of the race was dedicated to the 26 killed by Adam Lanza at a Connecticut school in December.) Was it all Obama's fault - or that of the Republicans? Everyone was playing the blame game, but no one really knew anything.
The US authorities are wary of using the word terrorism - as though bombing a city centre where half a million have gathered to celebrate a public holiday and the world's oldest marathon could be anything other than terrorism. In America, terrorism means foreigners. The notion that anyone home-grown could commit such a crime is almost impossible to swallow.
Many years ago, a journalist friend came up with an uncomfortable equation of newsworthiness:
1 British child = 2 British adults = 10 French or Germans = 50 Australians = 100 Indians = 500 Chinese = 500,000 Biafrans.
It's horrible and in these more sensitive days, you would hope that any vestige of truth in the formula would have gone. But it hasn't quite, has it?
What is missing from the numbers game is the circumstance: how rare is the event, how great the suffering, how near are the cameras.
Terrorists of all colours, shapes and sizes, are smart cookies. They know when and how to maximise impact and when to hold back. The finishing line of the Boston marathon was a master stroke, for not only were there huge crowds, tv cameras and reporters, there were also trained first-aiders, medical equipment and wheelchairs. These bombs were relatively small ball-bearing devices and they were detonated long after the elite athletes had finished the race. This does not seem to be the work of someone determined to cause maximum death and destruction.
The terrorist's objective is generally to terrorise - the clue's in the name - and there will obviously be consternation here with the London marathon next Sunday. That was naturally the focus of British coverage on the web today. The bombing itself was the splash in all the main papers yesterday, but even Martin Richard's human story had a tough job competing with the prequels of Mrs Thatcher's funeral today.
And how far does the web and Twitter influence our difficult choices about what to show and what to withhold? There used to be a cardinal rule that you did not run pictures of dead people; then it suddenly became OK if they were an unidentified foreigner (I don't think that's OK, but what do I know?), and then if they were famous or notorious, like Saddam Hussein.
Newspapers' websites show no restraint in publishing photographs of blood-caked children or of people with legs missing, their faces fully visible and identifiable, being carried or wheeled away from a scene of devastation. It can be only a matter of time before the rules are loosened still further for print. Has everyone forgotten that there were reasons for restraint: that people deserve dignity in injury and death, and the practical stricture that children should be able to pick up a paper without being frightened by what they see.
Another fear is that Twitter and the web will lead to a more cavalier attitude to what is fact and what is rumour, hearsay and speculation. The Slate website anticipated yesterday that people would seek to make capital - political or financial - from the disaster and published what it described as a journalist's guide to tweeting during a crisis. MediaUK has also put up a miniguide under the URL tweetresponsibly.net.
Flaky and overhasty tweets - especially from bystanders or friends of friends not involved in the incident or investigation - don't help in the search for truth; the imperative 'I must get this out now before anyone else finds out' is no one's friend. Stories on almost all the websites yesterday were heavy on 'sources', 'insiders','eyewitnesses' and 'unconfirmed reports', but feather-light on solid attribution.
By noon investigators had received 2,000 tips and were asking businesses to hang on to their CCTV footage. A search was initiated for a 'dark-skinned or black male, possibly with a foreign accent'; officers were also looking at a video said to show someone taking a number of backpacks into the area five minutes before the blasts.
Then there was the erratic driver and related information that led investigators to the Revere district of the city. A block of flats was soon swarming with teams from the FBI, city police, Homeland Security, immigration and customs seeking a 'person of interest'. They emerged with paper bags and rucksacks - but again, the occupant was quickly ruled out as a suspect.
David Taylor and Devika Bhat's copy for The Times was, in this context, a breath of fresh air, containing nothing that was not supported by legitimate and checkable sources.
The importance of Twitter in the Arab spring and in getting news out of closed societies cannot be over-emphasised. But now everyone with a smartphone is a citizen journalist and therefore feels obliged to tweet if they are witness to a big event - or even if their Auntie Mary used to live three streets away from a big event.
When I googled 'Boston marathon' at 7am yesterday, the BBC story was the top hit. Underneath there was a line saying '25,546 more stories like this..' Twenty-five thousand stories! (I know, this one makes it 25,457.)
One imagines - or hopes - that those were 'stories' in the sense that they had some information to impart. Twitter imposes no such discipline. Tens of thousands couldn't resist tapping 'OMG, horror in Boston' into their mobiles, while celebs felt compelled to tweet to show their compassionate nature - and burnish their image. Roll up Arnold Schwarzenegger, Taylor Swift, Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe, Miley Cyrus, Oprah Winfrey, Justin Timberlake, Courtney Cox, Pink, Ke$ha, Mark Wahlberg. We all just NEED to know that you are praying for the people of Boston.
In the face of so much piety, it was fun to see that Cher made a mess of hers. Clearly under instruction from some PR person to tweet something, she wrote: 'So sorry about happy Boston runners being blown up. wtf', swiftly followed by 'Boston! Made parts of 2 movies there. Lovely, lively people'. Well that's good then. We all feel better to know that.
Then came the cyber-ambulance chasers out to make a swift buck from disaster. Internet entrepreneurs, self-publicists, bloggers (yes, I know, pots and kettles), all went haring off - and so did the spivs and spammers. Within hours, fake Facebook and Twitter accounts had been set up, promising donations to fake charities in exchange for 'likes'. They even had pictures of little girls supposedly running in the race (do they let primary school children run in marathons?) who were supposed to have been killed.
Not all of those making hay from the disaster were behind computers.The LiveLeak website put up a video that shows passers by taking advantage of the melee to help themselves to official marathon jackets. Looting is always wrong, but it's hard not to smile at the smug look on these men's faces as they nonchalantly saunter away with their booty.
This post is really a series of questions, so here are two more to finish: how can we make sure that we maintain standards of journalism in our mainstream media when there are so many competing sources of information and little time to sort the wheat from the chaff?
And how can we make sure that Twitter voices that must be heard are not drowned out by the cacophony of witterers?
How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.