Three Lessons from the Boston Bombing Coverage

...and from every other time a terrible story is developing.


As soon as those two explosions tore through the Boston Marathon yesterday, dubious rumors and other false reports started surfacing in the press and in social media. So here's three tips for following stories like this one—lessons to keep in mind not just as events in Boston unfold, but the next time something this terrible happens.

1. People will find clues everywhere. Most of these will not actually be clues. When individuals enter an apocalyptic frame of mind, the historian Richard Landes has written, "everything quickens, enlightens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused—everything has meaning, patterns." And bombings tend to put people into an apocalyptic frame of mind. We go on edge, alert for aftershocks. Events that we ordinarily might ignore suddenly seem to fit a scary pattern. Everything becomes a clue.

This is completely understandable, even welcome. It may well turn up an unexploded device or a tip that helps uncover the perps. But mostly it will lead to false alarms. We learned that most forcefully right after 9/11, when anything from an oddly lumpy package to some spilled coffee creamer could be mistaken for a doomsday device. But we're learning it all over again now, when—to take the most prominent example—a fire at a library far from the scene of the explosions was identified, apparently inaccurately, as bomb number three. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal briefly reported Monday night that officials had found five undetonated explosives, then had to issue an update: "closer examinations led them to doubt that they were bombs." And that's just the stories that made it into the national press.

Whenever something large and horrible happens, rumors start flying, especially on the first day. Some of those rumors will be reported as fact. Stay skeptical.

2. The initial speculations will be useless. When the press trades in news, you have to carefully sort the well-sourced stories from the less credible ones. When it trades in speculation, on the other hand, you should feel free to ignore everything for 24 hours, if not longer. Chances are small that you'll learn anything, unless you're itching for a lesson in confirmation bias.

The two most infamous terrorist attacks on American soil are the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the 9/11 assaults of 2001. And so, naturally, people have rushed to assume that we were dealing with either the second coming of Timothy McVeigh or the second coming of Osama bin Laden. If they have a worldview where right-wing extremists are especially frightening, they might point out portentously that the explosions occured on Tax Day and Patriots' Day; if they have a worldview centered around the fear of Islam, they find reasons to assume that Muslims must be responsible. Observers with more outré outlooks reached for more unusual narratives, as when Alex Jones, the Illuminati-sniffing talk show host, tweeted that the atrocity "stinks" of a false flag attack. (Evidently they have a special smell.) Jones came in for a lot of mockery, as well he should. But none of these people knew what they were talking about.

As I write, no one has claimed responsibility for the blasts. The police, meanwhile, are keeping their suspicions close to the vest. This could turn out to be a right-wing or Islamist attack, but it could easily turn out to be something completely different. A movement doesn't need to be big or famous to commit murder. It doesn't even need to have a membership larger than a single disgruntled asshole. The history of domestic terrorism is filled with figures like George Metesky, the generator wiper who was injured in a boiler explosion and denied workman's compensation, and who then spent 16 years planting bombs around New York to get his revenge. For now I have no idea who committed this crime and, more to the point, neither do any of the alleged experts speculating on television.

3. Don't panic. Movies and TV shows have given us a deeply misleading picture of how people behave after incidents like this, one where the folks at the scene of the crime lose their minds while those who have the benefit of distance keep a steady head. This is backwards. Sociologists have shown that people tend to behave very admirably under the pressure of a disaster; panic and anti-social behavior are fairly rare. We saw that pattern play out again in Boston, from the bystanders who instantly rushed toward the blasts to help the injured to the locals who opened their homes to stranded strangers. Sure, Bostonians are on edge. Sure, they'll report a lot of suspicious packages that turn out to be harmless. But that's just an understandable dose of caution. If anyone's prone to panicking, it's us folks far from the scene.

So step back. Don't believe every scary report you hear, especially when the story is first breaking. Don't start imagining that the horror in Boston is about to replicate itself in your backyard. And no matter how terrible the images on your TV or laptop screen might be, don't assume the world is going to hell. Terror attacks aren't getting worse; these events are awful, but thankfully they're also rare. Reporters aren't getting worse; in the fog of breaking news, some of them have always made these mistakes. Even the conspiracy theorists aren't getting worse. When a man tried to assassinate Andrew Jackson in 1835, an anti-Jackson newspaper accused the president of staging a false flag attack. Human beings haven't changed all that dramatically in the two centuries since then.

Above all, people aren't getting worse. I don't know what monsters were behind these bombings. I do know that anyone involved in planning them is outnumbered overwhelmingly by the people who responded so ably in the aftermath, rescuing and healing the injured. The world isn't going to hell. It just stumbles into hell sometimes, and then it recovers.