The life and tragic death of student Sunil Tripathi, recently documented by the New York Times, is a shocking case study of the threat posed to the open information society when social networks get into a frenzy and when journalists abandon their ethical duties.
Sunil, aged 22, was wrongly accused in April of being the Boston Marathon bomber. His story began before the Boston tragedy when, on March 16, in a fit of depression, he suspended his university studies and went missing. His anxious family desperately tried to find him. They set up a “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” Facebook group accompanied with his photograph.
On April 18th, three days after the Boston bombings, the FBI released the two notorious photos of the suspects. A user on Reddit posted side-by-side pictures of Sunil Tripathi and the suspect, which soon went viral. As the social media frenzy built up several media organisations ran with the story.
Immediately the Tripathi Facebook page was flooded with threats and angry messages. The family closed the page. This only incited yet more speculation from journalists who reasoned without any proof that the family had recognised Sunil from the FBI photos.
One Twitter user claimed Sunil had been named as a suspect by the police – an accusation that turned out to be untrue after reviewing the official transcript of the police investigation. Nevertheless, several journalists with large Twitter followings began to retweet this false information. In less than 12 hours Sunil had become, in the minds of hundreds of thousands of people, the man responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings.
The next day the television network NBC announced that Tripathi was not a suspect. The Associated Press reported Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the real suspect. As quickly as he had been picked up, Sunil was dropped from the story, but the damage was already done. His reputation was destroyed.
Doors the family were trying to open to find their clinically-depressed son began to slam in their faces. A homeless shelter in Philadelphia reportedly told them “we do not aid terrorists.” The private organisation hired to search for Sunil say association with the case ruined their business. On April 23, Sunil was found dead in the Providence River. The details surrounding his death remain unknown.
Behind this story is a troubling context which reveals how rumour, speculation and dangerous lies buttressed by social media and journalists who fail to check their facts can distort the truth and ruin lives. This was not the only case of media shooting from the hip around the Boston attacks. Immediately after the incident another young student was targeted in a mix of police and media prejudice and incompetence.
It is a reminder that in the digital age we need more ethical journalism, more fact-checking, and more time to consider the impact of half-truths and sensationalism. At times of crisis people need access to reliable and trustworthy information, the problem is how to get it to them in an age when much of journalism and social media are overwhelmed by a rush to publish at the expense of truth and accuracy.
Just as important is the need for media and journalists to make more effort to correct their mistakes. Some media did apologise, but in most cases offensive Tweets were merely deleted as if that is enough to wipe the slate clean of the injustice and damage suffered by Sunil Tripathi and his family.
The true story of his life and tragic death is worth telling not only to make good a reputation that has been cruelly and inhumanely destroyed but also to remind journalists and media and those who would aspire to be citizen reporters that journalism has a purpose based upon by responsible communications.
Regrettably, the case of Sunil Tripathi is just the latest example of media blunders and wilful disregard of ethical responsibilities in recent months. The EJN has already reported on the inaccurate reporting of the Innocent Muslims film last year and highlighted how media coverage of the school massacre in Connecticut initially named the wrong person as the killer.
The media crisis is reflected not just in how the big stories are covered, but in the numerous falsehoods and errors that creep into journalism at all levels and across all platforms. The open information society is for many a brilliant, shining beacon of democracy, but it will not deliver freedom or protect people’s rights unless it establishes benchmarks for reliability and truth-telling through a revival of journalism based upon ethics and humanity.
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