They may be amateurs, but they’re lethal amateurs,’’ said Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security, of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers 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 pointed 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 all Reddit really figured out was the logo on the black golf hat worn by one of the suspects. Hardly a coup.
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; it played a very important one. 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 week 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 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.
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 freely available, it can even feel a little like we know what we’re doing. That can be dangerous.
(A regular dispatch from the front lines of management by the editorial team at the Harvard Business Review.)