Tag Archives: Boston Marathon shooting reflections


Photo: David Cenciotti,

The Boston Marathon bombing was a strong example of how news reporting and consumption have changed substantially in the zero-delay era of contributory journalism. The major news networks stuttered, choked and backpedaled. Social media was used to break the story of the second bombing suspect’s capture after one of the most dramatic manhunts in history.

The world first learned about the capture of the second bombing suspect through the Twitter feed of Boston Police Chief  Ed Deveau. CNN, MSNBC, FOX and the other news outlets learned from that tweet at the same time the rest of the world did. No news desk, no editor, no copywriter, no fact checking. By the time the networks ran it everyone with a smartphone already knew it. And accepted it as truth.

Social media played a key role in the Boston Marathon manhunt but also showed ominous signs of a new media that was invented before the rules to best employ it were developed. That’s dangerous. It’s also a common theme in new technology from the atom bomb to genetic engineering. The technology is developed before the rules to best employ it are considered. Then, the rules get made up in a fairly abrasive and hurried process along the way. Whether it is news reporting, weapons proliferation or gene therapy, once the genie is out of the bottle it is impossible to stuff it back in. And inevitably, people get hurt and things get broken along the way to figuring out a better way.


Immediately following the Boston Marathon bombings posts speculating about suspects, including their photos, began running on social media.

The potential for disaster from empowering the everyman with instant media access became apparent during the Boston manhunt. Photos of men dressed in tactical-looking clothing with shoulder patches and carrying backpacks began circulating as a point of concern. People played fast and loose with whom these men were. The photos were shared again and again referring to the men in them as “persons of interest”. They weren’t. The situation became worse when a ricin-poisoning scare in Washington surfaced and an explosion happened at a fertilizer plant in Texas. It took only minutes for the self-appointed conspiracy theorists to weave together a tale few big fiction writers would have conjured. A photo of a young man with a vaguely “eastern” appearance was circulated as a person of interest. As the hysteria elevated he became so concerned for his safety he stayed in his house. The Internet junior G-men and conspiracy experts began to take on the feel of a lynch mob. Instead of tar and feathers they had Facebook and Twitter.

Each generation has its de-facto media that represents unimpeachable accuracy. As each of those media emerge and evolve “experts” claim the rules have completely changed with that new media. It happened with the invention of the printing press, it happened with radio, it happened with television and it has happened with the Internet and contributory social media.

The truth is, the rules do not change. Shoddy reporting is still shoddy reporting. Speculation is still completely different from recounting verified facts. And like all previous media, if there is simply too much signal traffic it is difficult to gain any real understanding of events until things calm down.

There is an integral way to teach the best employment of social media that lies within the medium itself. Because of its contributory nature, we, as users, can reach some consensus on how to best use social media. Once that consensus is achieved, it is self-proliferated through social media. It becomes a kind of social media moray, the same way common courtesies such as a handshake and saying “thank you” are culturally transmitted, but to an even greater degree since those conventions don’t cross cultures the way social media does. The later underscores the necessity for such a consensus because social media, unlike other norms, is not regional; it’s universal and instantaneous.


One of the most remarkable posts following the Boston attacks was a photo that surfaced on social media of a group of Syrians holding a banner that said roughly, “this is what we experience every day” on it. It also included a message of condolence for the bombing. At first blush there was an abrasive, mocking tone to the photo, almost as though the suggestion was, “Ha, now you have to deal with terrorism too.” It is a well know dictum that when people read something on the Internet they tend to default to the worst possible interpretation.  But when I read it I thought back to the challenges of communicating quickly across cultures and with new media. The photo had been taken only minutes earlier and showed a big banner that took some time to prepare. I remembered Syrian friends and how they often phrase something. I also remembered that, since I am not as skilled at foreign languages as these men are (I couldn’t write a banner in Arabic and post it on Facebook since my Arabic isn’t good enough) it would be very easy for me to be the “ugly American” and presume their English was perfect and they were being snide. I decided that would not be my interpretation though. Instead I decided the Syrians meant us sincere condolences and also desired empathy for their plight. That shift in perspective completely recalibrated the post for me and, I hope, for others when I shared it.  It was an example of author Stephen Covey’s dictum, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

With these experiences in mind I’ve drafted my own set of editorial reminders for social media. It ‘s by no means the de-facto style guide, but it’s a start point for me. It looks like this:

–       At a minimum, think twice about what you post.

–       At a minimum, think twice about what you read.

–       If you wouldn’t want it said about you, don’t say it about anyone.

–       If you post your opinions, you’ve granted license to tolerate others’.

–       What you post never goes away, even if you delete it.

There are exceptions, and I am not an expert on this, you may feel differently and there may be times when this does not apply, but qualifiers go a long way to make things civil and safer.

Social media may be the most powerful resource of this century. It crosses borders instantly without restriction and grants power previously reserved for only a few. In the Arab Spring the power of social media toppled governments. It has made instant heroes, and villains. More than perhaps any single technology man has developed it has empowered and united us. How we decide to make use of it as it continues to evolve will say a lot about the trajectory of our future.


1999, #223, Marathon des Sables, the 55 mile stage, with members of the British SAS and the Queen’s personal security detail.

In reflection on the endurance lifestyle following the bombing at the Boston Marathon I thought about what I’ve been given from endurance sports and running.

When I was a kid I was so overweight they put me in a special education phys ed class. I started running. I lost weight. Running made me thinner and more fit. It gave me self-esteem and taught me to believe in myself. More importantly running taught me that what you put in, you get out in roughly equal measure. There are few bargains in life more straightforward than running. As a young teenager that was a valuable life lesson. Running gave me that.

When I couldn’t run in my early 20’s following a ski accident running taught me to keep going so I bought a bike. I won four state cycling championships and raced bikes in Europe. So running gave me that.

When I joined the Army and went to basic training I had an easier time than the other guys so I was able to help them out in training. I already learned that the toughest part of completing anything is simply not giving up. I was the honor graduate from our basic training and AIT class. So running gave me that.


Left, somewhere in Ohio, 1986. Right, Kona pier, Bud Light Ironman Hawaii, 1986.

After I left the Army I started my own business and learned what it really meant to work, something I knew how to do from running. So running gave me that.

When I met people who had never exercised before and didn’t know where to start I could help them and inspire them and empathize with them. So running gave me that.

When I saw a story in a magazine about a 152-mile running race in the Sahara desert it sounded impossible. Running taught me there usually is no such thing as “impossible” so I went there and did it. The Discovery Channel followed me during the race and put me in their documentary about the event. So running gave me that.

Over the next 20 years I raced endurance sports on every continent, from Africa to Asia, America to Antarctica. I saw things people only see on TV and movies, did things people only read about in books. I travelled the world. So running gave me that.

When I climbed the highest mountain in the western hemisphere I was the only person on our climbing team to make it to the summit. My guide told me it was because I was fit and moved fast. So running gave me that.

When my best friend was killed on his bike by a drunk driver riding home from my bike store I was depressed and thought I had lost everything. My friends Mike and Kim said maybe I should go for a run. I did. It took more than a few runs but I realized the friend I lost would have wanted me to keep going, so I did. So running (and my friend) gave me that.


The wire and plastic spider that lives inside my heart. Installed by Dr. Samir Dabbous of Baghdad, Iraq to prevent another stroke. It works perfectly.

I had a stroke when I was running and suffered brain damage and vision loss. The doctors told me that if I hadn’t kept running the damage may have been worse. I may have even died. They fixed the problem that caused the stroke by putting a patch inside my heart and said the procedure was easy on me because I was in good shape and it may have saved my life. So running gave me that.

After I had my stroke and a patch put inside my heart I was afraid I was permanently broken and couldn’t run anymore. But I remembered that sometimes when you are running and you feel the worst you simply have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, so that is what I did. Soon I was running again and I knew having a stroke did not change me one bit. So running gave me that.

When the recession came I lost everything and had to start over on the other side of the country with nothing in a new place and a new job. I learned you are only as good as your last run and, since my business didn’t end very well partially from my mistakes and partially from the recession, I learned I better keep running. So I did. Running gave me that.

When I wanted a new job and a better life I remembered that, in running, sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone so I did. I got a much better paying job and moved to a nicer place to live. So running gave me that.

I’ve never been a very fast runner or a very good runner, but I’ve never given up. That was one of the first things I learned about running: don’t give up.

So running gave me that.


Left, Ironman New Zealand, right, Ann Arbor Triathlon.