A recent discussion in our Violence seminar centered on the idea of media accountability in news reporting. The lecturer, Rebecca Palpant, directed particular attention to the relationship between media coverage/bias and societal views on mental health issues. According to Dr. Palpant, the media’s portrayal of people with mental health problems and the issues themselves holds significant power in defining and maintaining societal norms. This directly affects the way that patients with mental health disorders are treated, both in a private and public sphere. Personally, the patient’s social interactions, treatment options, and education and job opportunities will be affected by his or hers diagnosis; in the public sphere, media coverage influences hospitals, insurance companies, public policy experts, and government leaders as they are faced with decisions regarding mental health. Dr. Palpant emphasized the media’s large role in both of these arenas and discussed the importance of both publicity and media accountability with regards to these sorts of complex, sensitive issues.
I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Palpant’s words as I followed coverage of the Boston bombings over these past two weeks. As the initial events of the MIT shooting and Watertown chase were occurring, the Twitter hashtag “#SunilTripathi” went viral. Tripathi, a student of Indian-American heritage, had gone missing from Brown University approximately one month prior. The online community mis-identified Tripathi as one of the bombers, and Twitter, Reddit, blogs, and even certain news organizations began naming him as a suspect. Hours later, when the FBI finally released the names of the bombers, Tamerlane and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the focus quickly shifted to their backgrounds and beliefs instead.
Tripathi’s body was found in a Providence, R.I., river approximately a week after the Watertown incident. Although many news sources retracted their inaccurate reports and individuals and the Reddit community offered their apologies, Sunil Tripathi’s story quickly fell to the back of the news pages, a sad saga of an apparently depressed college student who committed suicide.
I found multiple aspects of this chain of events troublesome. The mis-identification of Tripathi and the premature rush to publicize and condemn him without official confirmation was highly disturbing. Not only did it show an alarming lack of concern for this man’s family and reputation, but it also had hallmarks of xenophobia and discrimination. As an Indian-American myself, I am particularly sensitive to this issue; it did not escape my attention that quite a few of the sources naming him as a suspect commented on his skin tone and suggested a possible link to Islam. Another complicated facet was Tripathi’s apparent depression, which had compelled his family to make a Facebook group begging for Tripathi’s safe return.
This detail correlated directly with Dr. Palpant’s discussion on the media bias linking mental illness with aggression and criminal behavior. Already a suspect based on his missing status and ethnicity, Tripathi’s mental health problems secured his involvement with the bombings. Writers and commentators alike made comments, since removed, which illustrated Tripathi as a disturbed individual who was probably influenced by Islamic radicals. The rush of the 24/7 news cycle and the need to be first caused many websites to name him without confirmation, and this is where the issue of media accountability becomes not only relevant, but essential.
Had Sunil Tripathi still been alive, he would have awoken in the morning to find his reputation in tatters due to this overzealous and irresponsible reporting. As it stands, this experience must have been unimaginably traumatizing for the Tripathi family, which has been largely ignored since the initial rush to gain information regarding Sunil. This story is a clear example of the sheer importance of media accountability, particularly for sensitive news issues. Until then, we are left with a sober warning about mass media on the Internet and the Tripathi family’s final public statement to everyone who is struggling: “Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”