Chava Gourarie published an in-depth look at Sunil Tripathi in the Columbia Journalism Review. The article talks about the new film, Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi, which was made about his life and the incident. Sunil went missing long before the Boston Bombing, and was unbeknownst to his family already deceased yet social media users wrongfully accused him of being the Boston bomber and then went on a despicable campaign against him on Facebook. It might not be shocking that social media would get something wrong about a news story and it might not even be shocking that there were hateful comments on social media, but it would probably surprise many that the mainstream media pursued this information as if it was a real lead. In addition, he wasn’t the only man falsely accused; the New York Post falsely accused two men they labeled the “Bag Men”.
The social media activism got so bad that nasty comments on the Facebook page created to raise awareness of Sunil’s disappearance had to be taken down.
Below are some excerpts from the report, which you can read in full here – A Closer Look at the Man Wrongfully Accused of Being the Boston Bomber (CJR)
“Tripathi wasn’t a bomber, or a suspect. He was a 22-year-old Brown University student who had been missing for a month when Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev bombed the Boston marathon in April 2013. But three nights after the bombing, he was wrongly accused on Reddit, convicted on Twitter, and vilified on Facebook.”
“A new film called Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi—the title of a Facebook page created by his family—introduces viewers to Sunil, called Sunny by family and friends, as a boy and later a college student battling depression, and takes them through the events of the night he was briefly identified as a terrorist. By showing us who Tripathi really was, and who he was to his family, the film highlights the cost of shoddy journalism.”
“In many of the post-mortems that explored what went wrong, blame was assigned either to social media for its irresponsible speculations, or to the journalists who tweeted or retweeted the rumors. Journalists on Twitter weren’t the only ones acting on the misinformation. Offline, journalists from mainstream outlets, including AP, CNN, Bloomberg, and Reuters did, too. They called the Tripathi family all night, leaving voicemail after voicemail, and sent TV cameras to the family’s Boston home.” Award-winning filmmaker and journalist Neal Broffman, the founder of One Production Place, told CJR that he had met Sunil’s sister shortly before he went missing and he helped the family search in the initial days of the investigation. Seeing how the media acted that night, he felt compelled to make the film.”
Broffman worked for CNN from 1990 – 1999 and covered international stories in over 40 countries. He left CNN in 2002 to found his production company. On his Twitter account @NealBroffman, he calls himself a “rehabilitated CNN journalist.”
“It’s not a phone call a journalist has to make. It’s actually a phone call a journalist shouldn’t make,” Broffman told CJR.
The film includes some of the messages the journalists’ left on the family’s cell phones. One of the messages came from Talking Points Memo, a web-based news organization that has been around for 15 years. The site gets about 400,000 views a day. However, the journalist at the site doesn’t even know how a police scanner works. They also don’t seem to know how to pick reliable sources. The message stated: “The Boston Police scanner has identified your brother as a potential suspect in the marathon bombing.” This was completely fabricated. News agencies apparently turn to Twitter as their source of “facts” for their stories. The information came from a tweet that spread like wildfire across social media, but seemingly was never fact checked: “BPD (Boston Police Department) has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.” The truth is that Mulugeta was mentioned in a scanner communication that had nothing to do with the bombing case. And his name isn’t Mike, the officer said, ““M as in Mike, Mulugeta.” Tripathi was never mentioned.
“Marcus DiPaola, a freelance photojournalist who was on the ground in Boston covering the search for the bombers, watched much of this unfold. “It was a failure to understand how a scanner works,” DiPaola told CJR. He’d found Reddit useful in guiding his reporting during the search, since many Reddit users were listening to police scanners and transcribing what they heard.”
But, the darker side of this helpful net soon came to the surface. While many social media users just wanted to help by listening to scanners, searching through photographs taken at the marathon, or combing through social media, they have absolutely no training in ethical journalistic practices.
Even Luke Russert, who works for NBC news and guest anchors on MSNBC programs, tweeted “It’s still early w unconfirmed scanner reports, but if Reddit was right with the Sunil Tripathi theory, it’s changed the game 4ever.”
DiPaolo commented on Reddit that it was unethical to publish, “names of suspects, victims, people who were just in the area.” Social media users ignored him.
“Journalists,” Broffman says, “are supposed to be the firewall between all the noise and something that is trustworthy.” The entire system failed that day and failed the Tripathi family.
On April 19, 2013, the FBI released the real names of the suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers. Just 4 days later, Tripathi’s body was found. He had committed suicide more than a month earlier, the day he went missing, March 16th.
“In the intervening days, the Tripathis called every journalist who had called them and said they were still looking for Sunil. The Facebook page they’d taken down because of the vile social attention they were receiving went back up.”
“Tripathi’s name will forever be connected to the Boston bombing, not as the bomber, but as a cautionary tale for journalists. Getting the story wrong has consequences, even in an age when the error may be as seemingly innocent as hitting retweet.”