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Aidan White

Published: 18 April 2013

Country: US

by Aidan White

boston bombingWhen media jump to dangerous conclusions in reporting acts of terrorism it can victimise the innocent and reinforce hatreds. This has been highlighted in coverage of the tragic events in Boston this week.

A twenty-year-old man watching the conclusion of the Boston Marathon had his body torn into by the force of the bomb, which killed three people and injured 176, many of them seriously.

But he was the only victim who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force” according to neighbours who watched in amazement as police ransacked his apartment and took away some of personal belongings.

It was this action – as a result of racial profiling by the police – that provided the basis for a widely-criticised report in the  tabloid New York Post which boldly and inaccurately claimed that 12 people were killed in the explosions and, more alarmingly, that a "Saudi national who suffered shrapnel wounds" had been identified as "a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing."

The story, which has yet to be corrected, spread quickly through the usual information pipelines: within 48 hours the story had 48,000 Facebook likes and was tweeted more than 16,000 times.


The Post report was disowned by Boston police, even though it was their initial racial profiling that set the media hare running. In fact, the man involved, a 21-year-old Saudi national, is a student studying English in Boston. He is described by his roommate Mohammed Hassan Bada, 20, as quiet, clean, and a sports fan — someone who he didn't think would plant a bomb.

But that didn’t stop some journalists from forcing the issue. Bada found himself on the receiving end of media harassment. He complained about being pestered non-stop by reporters the following day. "Let me go to school, dude," he told a Fox News producer, who asked him if he had any idea he might have been living with a killer.

Some media argued that the racial profiling was appropriate. "Was he a real student or was this a front?" asked Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano. "Was he honest or was he deceptive when he made his visa application, which is a lot more complex post-9/11 — but which any smart and determined person can trick the government and get in here even though they have evil designs."

It soon became clear, however, that the injured student with chunks of shrapnel in his leg was a witness (and a victim), not a suspect. Critics quickly called for the Post to apologize for labeling him a potential terrorist. Although it has never made the correction, the paper did, at least, subsequently and correctly report that "nothing terrorism related" was found in the wounded Saudi's apartment.

The scope for further victimization of people from Middle Eastern origin was made worse by the reckless language of one conservative media pundit who in the wake of the bombing caused a storm of protest for making the incendiary remark that “Muslims are evil. Let’s kill all of them.”

This was Erik Rush, a regular on Fox News and CNN. With no information about the attackers yet made public, he implied in a tweet that the culprit was the young man from Saudi Arabia and in response to criticism on Twitter went further with his call to violence.

He later said he was being sarcastic, but as someone with a history of targeting Muslims on the air and in his writings, and in the febrile atmosphere in which he was working, it is perfectly understandable why some people might take the comment seriously.

All of this illustrates that in some corners of media – even those at the heart of the traditional mainstream – journalists are too quick on the draw when it comes to speculation over responsibility for acts of terror. The police don’t help when they set the pace with their stereotypes and institutional bias, but that is no excuse for journalists to publish unverified and potentially inflammatory information.

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Dasha Ilic
written by Dasha Ilic, April 19, 2013
There was a discussion on the same subject on Democracy Now. I wonder when we'll have this kind of debate on mainstream media.

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