This article was contributed by UW Communications 363 student Ilona Idlis.
It was three a.m. and my eyes are starting to sting. After hitting refresh for the umpteenth time in the last six hours, I scroll through all my tabs once more. Row call: three Twitter feeds backlogged with #watertown, #bostonboming and #scanner searches, two Reddit threads with user JpDeathBlade’s breakdown of the manhunt, one CNN live feed, one local Massachusetts TV station and the prize jewel—a Broadcastify.com station buzzing with the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) radio transmissions.
The information flow is raw, immediate, addicting. I’ve never felt more connected. I’ve never felt more confused. And now, nearly a month after the Boston manhunt, I’m still regretting the choices I made that night.
All of this information led to social media witch hunts that tarred the identities of multiple, misidentified “suspects.” The speculation that catapulted now-deceased missing student Sunil Tripathi to infamy was present on the very Reddit threads I browsed through. Believers took to Twitter to share their confidence in Reddit’s detective work, sinking the Tripathi family into deeper misery.
“That was the height of irresponsibility in my book,” said Seattle Times’ criminal beat reporter Sara Jean Green. “No one would want that kind of thing for their family, and for what? What are you gaining? There’s a compulsion in this society, with Twitter and all that crap, to get things out as quickly as possible [as if] you’re going to win a prize if you tweet first.”
I did not tweet nor post about Tripathi, but I was not immune to the wild rush of sharing information. My night was spent live-tweeting the BPD scanner and re-tweeting those who were doing the same. So when scanner-eared Michael Skolnik of GlobalGrind.com tweeted the name and DOB of an allegedly apprehended suspect, I believed him and hit re-tweet, trusting he had heard something on the BPD scanner I hadn’t. He was wrong. Minutes later the police would release the names of Tsarnaev brothers and I quickly realized that my own Twitter feed was no longer the bastion of journalistic accuracy and integrity that I envisioned. Despite my best intentions, I had libeled yet another person in this social media massacre.
Since then Skolknik has scrubbed his wrongful tweets (consequently absolving my own online history) and Reddit has apologized to the Tripathi family. But distaste for the internet’s impact on the manhunt lingers. Various news outlets have since tried to figure out exactly how one obscure comment ballooned into a full scale witch hunt. The most common attribution was “I heard [blank] on the scanner.”
Sound familiar? Knowing that I wasn’t the only one allowing garbled radio transmissions to cloud my judgment isn’t much comfort, but it does force the question:
Should you ever live-tweet a police scanner?
By the time dawn broke over Watertown that Thursday, Mike Tigas’ answer to the Twitter allegations flurry was a resounding “NO.” The New York-based tech developer created a single serving site ShouldILiveTweetTheScanner.info that told visitors just that. The page went viral, racking up 13,304 visits in a day.
“I’m not entirely against the idea of tweeting from a scanner,” Tigas confessed. “But [I was] really frustrated at how quickly people jump on in the moment scanner traffic as if they were fact. At the very least everyone should understand anything that happens in the heat of the moment is subject to errors on the part of human judgment and when there is a lot of info-noise, don’t make it worse.”
Green has been covering the Seattle Police Department and courts for the Times for over ten years, most of it with an 11x7” scanner permanently affixed to her desk. Though being constantly tuned in has often helped her be the first on scene—including at federal prosecutor Tom Wale’s assassination—she would never quote the in the moment radio dispatches that got her there.
“You don’t necessarily know if the first call out is accurate. And often times it’s not,” Green explained. “Police situations are dynamic, things change all the time and what you think you know during an initial call out could change dramatically within a minute. That’s why there’s no substitute for actually going to the scene and talking to people.”
Now that the necessity for geographic proximity has been eliminated by apps and websites that can stream radio frequencies from police departments all over America, few digital denizens feel they have to be physically part of a community to eavesdrop and comment on it. But Green insists that greater access should come with greater caution, especially when one’s racing to share information.
“What you think you know is actually just a fraction of what’s going on, so be responsible about it and try not to spread false information,” she warned. “You can’t just do a knee jerk reaction [and post], because as we saw with the Boston situation, it can have real ramifications.”
Some police departments are responding to the public’s meddling by encrypting their radio transmissions. UW Police Commissioner Steve Rittereiser disagrees with that approach.
“In general, the public listening to a police scanner is good thing,” Rittereiser said. “It creates an opportunity for the citizen to feel like they have some accountability, some ability to listen to what’s going on in their neighborhood and in their environment. [I] think that’s a positive thing.”
But he did leave me with a word of caution: “People have to be a little careful about their interpretations of what they’re hearing.”
After the manhunt and my brush with libel, I plan to. Will you handle the scanner with care?