In Boston, a Week of Amateurs Ends in a Day to Thank Professionals

"They may be amateurs, but they're lethal amateurs," Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security, told Andrea Mitchell of the Boston Marathon bombers, hours after one suspect had been killed and hours before another would be captured.

In a way, this whole crazy episode was about amateurs. Amateur bombers, amateur sleuths, amateur reporters. But it was also a day for professionals: doctors, law enforcement, journalists. And despite making a few mistakes, there's no doubt that in this case, the professionals came out looking much better.

In an apologia for Reddit on Techcrunch, Mike Masnick points out that both the amateur sleuths and the professional journalists made errors. And that's true, especially on CNN (and others who claimed a suspect had been arrested on Thursday) and the New York Post (which published photos of innocent people Redditors had mistakenly identified as being suspects). But this is a false equivalency: media professionals also reported plenty of facts that were true. At places like the Boston Globe, NPR, NBC, and heck, even the Watertown Patch, professional journalists were getting it right. And as far as I can tell (and someone who followed the subchannel more closely can correct me if I am wrong) all Reddit really figured out was the logo on the black golf hat worn by one of the suspects. Hardly a coup. Worse, in some cases, crowdsourcing came dangerously close to — maybe even became — mobsourcing, accusing many innocent people of simply "being brown by a bomb," as one critic succinctly put it.

It would be easy to make condescending remarks about the crowdsourced sleuthing in this case, and a lot of people have. To which I say: of course! They're amateurs! Professionals, whether in law enforcement or in journalism, have training, experience, and expertise. Not that the public didn't play a role; they played a very important one. Of course journalists rely on witnesses, and many witnesses relayed their first reports through social media, where anyone could read them. And law enforcement has relied on the public's help since the days of the wanted poster.

Last night was no different: a huge break in the case came after a Watertown resident noticed something amiss in his boat. Seeing blood and that the shrinkwrap over the boat had been torn he did what was either the bravest or the stupidest — perhaps both — thing he's ever done, and lifted the cover to discover the suspect. He promptly called in the professionals. They arrived with the sorts of tools only professionals have access to: helicopters, thermal imaging cameras, and robots.

Of course, the immediate aftermath of the bombing was an essential collaboration between the pros and the amateurs: citizens and trained first-responders alike rushed to help those wounded by the blasts. The difference there is that any of us may be able to stanch bleeding, at least a little, or keep someone conscious, or comfort someone wounded. But not any of us can amputate a leg, administer a blood transfusion, or surgically remove shrapnel. We don't blame the amateur providing CPR for not being able to to perform surgery, and we should not blame the crowd for being unable to perform the job of the FBI. But we can blame them for spreading misinformation that causes innocent people to be hurt, spreads panic, or interferes with the ability of the professionals to do their jobs.Yesterday, for instance, many on twitter were listening to the police scanner and reporting what they heard as fact. As professional police-beat reporters know, there's a lot of stuff on the scanner that turns out to be wrong. And while for a lot of truly sensitive information, the FBI uses an encrypted channel, there are risks to relaying the movements of police in real time. You could watch, in real-time, as one by one people on twitter listening to the scanner realized that they weren't adding to the flow of information, they were actually muddying the waters with misinformation. They were learning, rapidly, a little of what it's like to be a professional.

In a 2008 HBR article, Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria define a profession thus:

True professions have codes of conduct, and the meaning and consequences of those codes are taught as part of the formal education of their members. A governing body, composed of respected members of the profession, oversees members' compliance. Through these codes, professional institutions forge an implicit social contract with other members of society: Trust us to control and exercise jurisdiction over this important occupational category. In return, the profession promises, we will ensure that our members are worthy of your trust — that they will not only be competent to perform the tasks they have been entrusted with, but they will conduct themselves with high standards and integrity. On balance we believe that a profession, with well-functioning institutions of discipline, will curb misconduct because moral behavior is an integral part of the identity of professionals — a self-image most are motivated to maintain.

In an emergency, when so many of us are feeling like if we just had something to do, some role to play, some way to help, we'd feel so much better, it's very tempting to jump into action. With so much information is freely available, it can even feel a little like we know what we're doing. That can be dangerous.

Still, Masnick, in the TechCrunch piece, was right about one thing: the amateur-sleuthing, amateur-reporting genie is not going back in the bottle. But maybe next time we can be a little better at accepting that sometimes, the best way to help professionals is to simply get out of their way.

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