The apparent suicide of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman found dead in a Texas jail cell after being wrestled out of her car and to the ground by a police officer who pulled her over, is exactly the sort of event that’s going to generate speculation and, inevitably, rumors — it involves an emotionally and racially charged tragedy, has a bunch of missing pieces and facts, and comes at a time when a widespread, justifiable skepticism of law enforcement has taken hold. It’s no surprise that a couple weeks after story broke, all sorts of far-fetched conspiracy theories surrounding Bland’s death and the police response to it are floating around.
Those theories, which tend to spread the quickest on Twitter, were given a huge signal boost on Friday, when BuzzFeed ran an article by Ryan Broderick, a news reporter there, headlined “People Are Speculating That Sandra Bland Was Already Dead When Authorities Took Her Mugshot.”
Throughout the article, the mere existence of someone, somewhere tweeting a theory about Bland’s death is treated as evidence that that theory is worth investigating, and then there’s little to no follow-up as to whether there’s any evidence supporting the theory in question. “There are questions surrounding whether or not a trash bag would be strong enough to be fastened into a noose,” writes Broderick at one point. There are? Who asked them? What’s the answer?
Broderick’s coverage of the conspiracy theory alluded to in the headline — Bland was dead when the photo was taken — is even more lacking. He writes that “People have … speculated about the position of Bland’s shoulders, the fact that the color of the background matches the floor of the jail’s holding cell, and the angle of the photograph in order to make the case that Bland was not alive when the photo was taken.”
This is an explosive claim — that police killed Bland or found her dead in her cell or the police cruiser in which she was driven to the station, and then, in just about the most morbid scene imaginable, tried to cover their tracks my faking a live mug shot of her. What does Broderick, the journalist reporting on this story, think of the claim? All we get is one sentence — “Mugshots of other inmates at Waller County Jail, however, were taken against a similar background” — and some quotes from a police statement trying to explain the “discrepancies.” At no point does he definitively address whether there’s any real likelihood that Bland was already dead at the time of her mug shot.
Compare that to USA Today’s coverage of the same claim. It’s similarly irresponsible — it starts with almost 400 words of speculation from such forensic-science luminaries as “the author known as Zane and reality show personality Judith Camille Jackson.” (Zane, we are told, noted on Facebook that “I am big on looking into people’s eyes and I don’t see any life in hers.”) But after that, bare-minimum journalistic due diligence is finally achieved: An actual forensic pathologist pops up to say that he sees nothing in the photo to suggest Bland is dead, and that you can’t tell from a photo whether someone recently died anyway. In other words, there’s no reason to believe Bland was dead when her mug shot was taken, other than that some people on Twitter decided she was.
Whether or not big outlets like BuzzFeed report credulously on these stories matters a lot. Rumors are like viruses: They pop up in a given area and infect some people — people who believe them — and fail to infect nonbelievers. Of the people who get infected, some of them will pass them onto others via word of mouth, the internet, or others, and some won’t. So the size of the population exposed to a rumors in its early days makes a huge difference (not to stretch the analogy, but imagine a new strain of the flu first emerging in New York City, versus in an isolated town in North Dakota).
BuzzFeed exposed 1.7 million people (and counting) to these rumors, based on the number shown on the “Trending” graphic that sat atop the story until recently. Naturally, those rumors will flow to exactly the people most likely to be captivated by them, who will in turn pass them on further and further and further. So pick whatever percentage you want — did 30 percent of those 1.7 million people read Broderick’s article and pass on at least one of the rumors? Fifteen percent? — and run the numbers and you’ll see just how big an impact an article like this can have.
Now, Broderick’s job is to cover the internet, to identify fun and crazy and interesting stories with viral potential, and he’s good at it: stories Like “A Woman Posted This Facebook Photo Of A Man Masturbating At Her On A Train And The Police Found Him” are irresistible viral fodder, and often solid news stories in their own right. But the Bland story was different — it involved an event millions of people are transfixed by and speculating about because the full story hasn’t yet come out. Given the realities of how rumors spread and how hard they are to quash, reporting on online rumors about Bland’s death should involve some level of discretion, of journalistic responsibility.
Here’s how Shani Hilton, the site’s executive news editor, defended the story in a statement that BuzzFeed sent me:
BuzzFeed News doesn’t shy away from reporting on the conversations happening on social media — we don’t want to sanitize the internet. That’s where our audience is, and it’s our job to provide context for the complicated issues they’re already discussing, as we’ve done here. We used original reporting and comments from officials, along with better resolution photos, to help readers understand what is true, false, and still being worked out.
But providing context means actually explaining to readers whether there’s any reason to believe a given conspiracy theory — or whether it even rises to the level of warranting a response. Broderick’s attempts to do so are spotty, at best, given that on the single most spectacular claim in the story — a claim broadcast in the headline — there’s little attempt to assess whether it even passes the smell test. Many, many people will come away from Broderick’s article thinking it’s really important to get to the bottom of whether Sandra Bland was alive during her mug shot and whether police doctored her intake documents, despite the lack of anything approaching substantive evidence for either claim. And simply posting a photo of the jail cell, or including a quote from the police, isn’t really giving readers more information about the case; it’s just going to invite more uninformed speculation.
“So what?” you might be asking. “People believe crazy stuff all the time.” Well, that’s true, but when online conspiracy theorists and vigilantes get fully riled up on a case where key details are still missing, and the investigation of which is ongoing, the results are almost always terrible. Examples abound, such as Reddit’s horrifically botched attempts to sleuth the Boston Marathon bombing story.
BuzzFeed staffers should recognize these dangers as well as anyone, in light of one of the site’s best recent stories. Last month BuzzFeed published a riveting, wonderfully reported piece by Katie J.M. Baker about Jessica Chambers, a Mississippi teenager who was burned alive in her car in December of 2014. The murder is unsolved, and a small online community has quickly become obsessed with tracking down Chambers’s killer. Shockingly, internet obsessives do not make for good detectives, and as a result, Chambers’s friends, family members, and former significant others have had to deal with not only the trauma of the event itself, but with online and even phone harassment from strangers convinced they’re hiding something, all based on evidence that’s laughable when placed in the full context that’s naturally unavailable to internet sleuths thousands of miles from Mississippi.
I’m not saying that’ll happen here, but I am saying that it’s a risk. It’s also a serious distraction from the many pressing law-enforcement issues raised by Bland’s death — issues that don’t require any conspiracy theorizing, because they’re right there in the video of her getting arrested, right there in the fact that she’s not alive today, right there in hard, brutal statistics about racial discrepancies in law enforcement. In the absence of evidence, venturing into conspiracy-land only makes the process of untangling and eventually solving these deeply rooted problems even more complicated.
Whatever the long-term results of these conspiracy theories, BuzzFeed’s article is a weird role reversal for journalism. Journalists are supposed to help people know what to believe and what not to believe — especially when, in the wake of a horrible and poorly understood tragedy, those readers are most vulnerable to conspiracy theorizing and are most desperate for carefully vetted information. Instead, BuzzFeed (not to mention the other outlets that engaged in similar reporting) took a bunch of rumors from Twitter and blasted them to almost 2 million of its readers, many of whom had probably never encountered those rumors before. Internet rumors are a fascinating, worthwhile subject to cover — but not if by reporting on those rumors, you help to spread them.