Twenty-four hours before the first of two bombs exploded on Boston’s Boylston Street on April 15, I was walking that very street, impressed with the organized way the city was preparing for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.
As I walked, I was often passed by thinly clad runners doing last-minute preps for the next day’s big road race. More than 21,000 runners take part in this mother of all marathons, and it is a sight to behold.
A world of difference
What a difference a week made. Instead of great memories of individual races well-run, we had memories of chaos for what happened at the finish line, and the sorrow that comes from grieving three lives lost at more than 170 wounded; many severely.
As Monday morphed into Tuesday and beyond, my attention shifted not only to the hunt to find the bombers, but to the roles that communication technology and the social media played in those manhunts.
It began occurring to me last Monday night that this was probably the most photographed crime in history, and that the chances of the culprits being identified early were much greater than the chances they would not be identified at all.
You’re on Candid Camera
Boston is one of America’s many cities that relies a lot on street and store surveillance cameras to record anything that might later prove to need recording.
Ironically, The Boston Globe reported on the rise in the use of street cameras back in August of 2007. Reporter Charlie Savage wrote:
“The Department of Homeland Security is funneling millions of dollars to local governments nationwide for purchasing high-tech video camera networks, accelerating the rise of a ‘surveillance society’ … Since 2003, the department has handed out some $23 billion in federal grants to local governments for equipment and training to help combat terrorism. ”
Privacy not a concern here
While many of us, at times, worry about the threat these surveillance cameras pose to our individual privacy, this was not one of those weeks in Boston. We wanted police and FBI to see as many people as possible and, in reviewing those images, to find the guys that did this crime.
Of course, that is exactly what happened.
But it wasn’t just the street cameras, or even the camera from Lord & Taylor on Boylston Street, that did the job. These cameras were joined by the hundreds of cell phone cameras from everyday citizens who had gathered — they thought — to watch the remainder of the marathoners cross the finish line.
When those camera images were added to the surveillance camera results, the world saw who the two brothers were who ignited these bombs. Call if citizen journalism at its best.
Interviewed later, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, “The use of cameras was invaluable; both surveillance and smart phone cameras.”
Social media exposure
But the images still needed to be circulated to all of us. Television was the first to do that, but many young people don’t watch TV these days. So it was the images uploaded to the social media of Facebook and Twitter that helped complete the job and let everyone see the faces of terror in Boston.
It is no secret that young people get their news from places like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the home pages of AOL and Yahoo. So getting the images out on the Web in sites like these helped in many ways to get maximum interaction from people who knew either of the two brothers, or perhaps both.
Not only did people start calling in tips to police, but some netziens became amateur sleuths in circulating, deciphering, and analyzing photos and factoids to piece together theories of the crime and where the suspects might be hiding.
Users become sleuths
One site in which Web users became investgators was Reddit.com. One sub-group that was formed almost immediately was classified under “Find the Bomber” On this home page, more than 60,000 users discussed different photos of the crime scene and exchanged ideas about where the suspects might be.
This is a classic example of what I wrote about several weeks ago in this blog when discussing crowd sourcing. Although, in this case, the crowd was not so much used as story sources, but as potential sources of information that might be helpful to police.
One expert noted this week, “Everyone became a soldier armed with information.”
And former Boston and New York Police Commissioner simply stated it this way, in an interview Saturday night with CBS’ 48 Hours:
“Every step of the way, technology played a part in bringing these two men to justice. Every step of the way.”
Today is April 19, 2012, the 17th anniversary of the day the red earth of Oklahoma City turned a darker shade of crimson.
This, of course, was the day 168 Sooners lost their lives and some 800 others were injured in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing.
I was living in Boston at the time, teaching at Boston College, but I was home visiting my parents in
the Oklahoma City area when Timothy McVeigh lit the fuse to the rented Ryder truck filled with homemade explosives.
I spent the next two months covering the aftermath for an area daily newspaper whose town lost 26 souls in that bombing. It was a life-changing experience for all of us, and hardly a week has gone by since then that I haven’t thought about that tragic day.
I always try to relate my profession of newsgathering to the coverage of significant events, and recently I’ve been wondering how this day of April 19, 1995 might have been covered had it been April 19, 2012.
To begin with, people would have known about that event today even faster than they did in 1995, and more people would have been aware of it. In fact, it’s hard to believe anyone, anywhere would have been unaware of it by 10:30 a.m.
First word would have gone out in less than a minute over an iPhone or Droid cell phone. Live pictures would have accompanied it, and probably a video as well on many phones.
And some of these uploads would have come from surviving victims themselves, some still buried in open spaces under piles of building rubble. The videos might have been incredible. Some of these calls and uploads might have helped find buried victims quicker.
Before long, the viral nature of digital communications would have done it’s job at the grassroots level rather than waiting for people to turn on their TV sets or car radios.
Facebook a factor
The same people phoning word out to friends would have also been uploading that word and those visual images to Facebook, then Instagram, then YouTube. By nightfall, there would be at least 20 million hits on these YouTube video uploads; maybe 80 million by the end of the next day.
By that next day, someone would have set up a dedicated FB page to the Oklahoma City bombing. It would be a place of information exchange, coming-together of those in grief,
and of outpourings of support. If anyone needed help, this would be a good place to find it.
Other recent tragedies like the tsunamis of Indonesia and Japan, as well as the tragic loss of life in African countries, have shown the power that can come from such focused Facebook pages that serve as a meeting place for victims of tragedies.
What about accuracy?
As for the accuracy of the information itself, that may be another question. Whether in a digital age or not, the truth has a way of emerging slowly. Something like the blooming of a rose when exposed to the glare of sunlight.
Yes, there would have been more windows on this tragic world. There would have been more voices talking about what was happening. But solid facts about how many were killed, who they were, who survived, and who pulled the trigger igniting this misery – all these would all have to wait for journalists to do their jobs in the old-fashioned way: Asking questions of informed sources.
Life takes time
Having Facebook, Droids, or iPhones would not have enabled reporters to learn any faster who was buried under nine floors of concrete rubble. That technology wouldn’t have made finding the children in the second-floor daycare any easier. The search-and-rescue teams needed time to do their jobs, no matter how sophisticated the communication technology.
Of the many things I will always remember about April 1995, one is the way that journalists and search teams seemed to work in synch, albeit on different parts of the task at hand. The search teams would locate the bodies, the journalists would attempt to answer the myriad questions everyone had about this tragedy.
People doing their jobs
At the interface of these two groups – searchers and journalists – stood a handful of dedicated public affairs officers for the Oklahoma City Fire Department, Police Department, and FEMA. Their regular updates were helpful, and the coverage system they devised for journalists proved to be generally successful.
Nearly everyone seemed to be focused and doing their jobs in the days and weeks following that bombing, and the friends and families of the dead and survivors seemed grateful for that.
Both parts needed
Today’s interactive, digital media have shown what they can do in spreading the word to more people, faster. But the newer media forms, alone, are not enough when disaster strikes.
You have to plug in the dedication of trained responders and professional journalists, all focused on doing their jobs, for the recipe for resolution and healing to begin taking shape.
As I write this, it’s the 4th of July, and I’m more reminded of it than usual because I’m helping to host 20 college student leaders from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia at my university. It’s the first time any of them have been in America, and they are having a blast on this fireworks-laden birthday for America.
Their view of America has come largely from television and the Internet, and they have learned a great deal about us from these media. Much more than we know about them, in fact, but that’s usually the story, no?
So I started wondering what kinds of views of American history might be available online, and it led me to two interesting sites that I’ll describe in this post. Let’s start with the PBS site called, “Liberty! The American Revolution.”
Like many of the PBS sites, this one is a companion to the series of the same name that aired on the public broadcasting network. “Liberty!” provides a wealth of interactive information about the revolution and even offers a “Road to Revolution” interactive game for younger viewers.
Bringing it to life
When you click open the tab, “Chronicle of the Revolution,” you are greeted with individual multimedia packages focusing on the following moments: Boston, 1774; Philadelphia, 1776; Trenton, 1776; Saratoga, 1777; Yorktown, 1781, and Philadelphia, 1791.
In the first of these packages you find an original handbill from April, 1774 Boston entitled, “High Tea in Boston Harbor! Band of ‘Mohawks’ dumps 342 chests of Darjeeling tea off Griffin’s Wharf.” Clicking deeper, you can get video presentations of the tea party, and pop-ups of key figures in the protest movement including Benjamin Franklin.
Clicking open the “Road to Revolution” game, you can test your knowledge about the American Revolution (ahem, and the true location of the Concord Bridge, despite the fact Rep. Michelle Bachmann thinks it is in New Hampshire), and “navigate your way to independence.”
First question from the test: “What did Great Britain create in 1773 that put you on the Road to Revolution?” Possible answers: (A) The Stamp Act, (B) the Intolerable Acts, or (C) The Benny Hill Show. Although one or two presidential candidates might pick C, the rest of us know better.
Second question: “What was the name of the local political group that organized this demonstration?” Possible answers: (A) Sons of the Pioneers, (B) Sons of Liberty, (C) Sons of the American Revolution. Since Roy Rogers was born a few years after the Revolution, you have good reason to doubt A.
The site also gives you audio/video previews of the PBS series of “Liberty,” “The Making of Liberty,” and “The Music of Liberty.”
Williamsburg comes alive
Another interactive look at 18th Century America is found at the Colonial Williamsburg site. The tagline on this site’s heading is, “That the future may learn from the past.” For those people unable to go to Williamsburg in person, this site does a pretty good job of letting you learn vicariously about early-day America.
The site’s “History” tab presents you with, “Life in the 18th Century: People, Places, and the Making of History.” It is here you can see photos of early-American craftsmen in period garb using hand tools to build such things as a baby grand piano, or you can learn the recipes for early-day dishes like the following for apple fritter:
“Pare some apples and cut them in thin slices, put them in a bowl, with a glass of brandy, some white wine, and quarter of a pound of powdered sugar, a little cinnamon finely powdered and the rind of a lemon grated: let them stand some time, turning them over frequently; beat two eggs very light, add one quarter a pound of flour, a tablespoonful of melted butter, and as much cold water as will make a thin batter; drip the apples on a sieve, mix them with the batter, take one slice with a spoonful of butter to each fritter, fry them quick, of a light brown, drain them well, put them in a dish, sprinkling sugar over each, and glaze them nicely.” – Randolph, Mary. “The Virginia Housewife.” pg.155.
You can also find many interesting bios of 18th Century men and women who are all a part of this country’s colorful history. Some are well known, others aren’t. One of the latter is Catherine Blaikley, born in 1695, and a glimpse of her shows the following:
“Catherine Blaikley lived in Williamsburg and was an ‘eminent Midwife who delivered “upwards of three Thousand Children,” presumably white and black, slave and free. Her husband was merchant William Blaikley, who died in 1736. During her 35-year widowhood, Mrs. Blaikley lived in the house now called the Blaikely-Durfey House on Duke of Gloucester Street. She died in 1771.”
More than java
Under the “Visit” tab on the site, you are invited to “Be Present in the Past,” and can experience sights and sounds of 18th Century America. For example, you can take a video tour of the Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse where you learn: “
English coffeehouses appeared in the 17th century and quickly became popular. These establishments provided patrons with new beverages such as coffee, tea, and chocolate. Even more importantly, coffeehouses served as sites for the energetic discussion of politics, news, and business.
“Despite Williamsburg’s relatively small size, locals sought to emulate the cosmopolitan fashions of Europe, which included this coffeehouse culture. In the early 1760s, Richard Charlton, a local wigmaker, became proprietor of a newly converted coffeehouse near the Capitol. During the ten years the coffeehouse was open, many important political figures frequented its rooms, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Lieutenant-Governor Francis Fauquier, as well as many merchants and gentry.”
Nothing beats going to these living-history museums in person, but interacting with their online sites is not a bad alternative if information about this country’s young years is what you’re after.