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The Dangers of Citizen Detective Work

Today the unfortunate news broke that a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was found dead in the Providence River in Rhode Island. He had been missing for over a month. What catapulted his name into the news, however, wasn’t the fact that he was a 22-year-old missing Ivy League student; it was his alleged connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Soon after the FBI released photographs of the alleged bombers who were eventually identified as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the social media site Reddit went to work trying to identify the men photographed in baseball caps. The possibility that the one of the bombers was Tripathi was broached by a commenter on Reddit on Thursday night, leading to his name becoming so infamous that it appeared on the top worldwide trends list on Twitter. Perhaps due to this social media buzz his name was reported over the Boston Police Department’s scanners early Friday morning, lending fuel to the fire of suspicion.

Soon the Tripathi family, already under an incredible amount of stress and strain after the disappearance of their loved one, were left defending him to Facebook commenters, Twitter users and the media. The vultures descended, leading the family to close the Facebook page dedicated to the search and release a statement:

A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours.

We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.

We are grateful to all of you who have followed us on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit—supporting us over the recent hours.

Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support. We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil.

Unfortunately, we know that even seasoned professionals sometimes get it wrong in the heated pursuit for a suspect in an incident as infamous as the Boston marathon bombing. Just this week an Elvis impersonator, Paul Kevin Curtis, was released from prison after being accused of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The tragic story of Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered the bomb and moved spectators to safety in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park, is well known to many. Jewell was under suspicion for the bombings for several months before being exonerated and went on to sue various media outlets for libel (each outlet that Jewell sued eventually settled out of court for undisclosed amounts). He died in 2007 at 44 and had reportedly said that even after being cleared, he could never escape his notoriety. In a rush to report news on the Newtown massacre the news media fingered the brother of the gunman, Ryan Lanza, as the assailant, a fact he learned while sitting at his desk in midtown Manhattan.

The coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing by news media was plagued almost from the outset with misinformation. The Huffington Post made a video compilation of the lowest news media moments and points out that soon after the bombings President Obama told the media and Americans, “In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens … it’s important that we do this right.” In the hours after the bombing Jonathan also cautioned against jumping to any conclusions, warning:

Is to be hoped that all those who write on public affairs will refrain from jumping to conclusions about what happened until we have some definitive information. Until that happens, let’s take a moment to pray for the families of the dead and for the recovery of the wounded.

In a statement released before Tripathi’s body was discovered ABC News reports:

Reddit general manager Erik Martin apologized for the “dangerous speculation” that “spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”

“The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened,” Martin wrote in a blog post on Monday.

“We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations,” he said.

One would hope that after the Jewell, Ryan Lanza and most recently Curtis incidents the news media and amateur sleuths would have learned their lesson. It’s hard enough for trained and experienced law enforcement officials to conduct high-stress searches for perpetrators, and while those in the social media community may feel as though they’re helping the investigation, it’s clear that in this instance, they did nothing but impede it.

We’ve also seen yet again that it’s time for the media to slow down and focus on being right, not first. It’s not yet known how long Tripathi’s body has been in the river but even if the pale of suspicion from Reddit and later the media didn’t lead directly to his death, it’s clear how painful the situation was for a family already gripped with fear over their missing loved one. The world will soon forget Tripathi’s name, but his family will likely never recover from the treatment they received from their fellow Americans and our news media in their darkest hour.



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