Last night, we were all pretty much thinking the same thing: This could be it. The use of explosives in the confrontation, the huge number of law enforcement officers swarming the scene, the description of two men. While many of us were wondering out loud of the events in Watertown were connected to the marathon bombing, others became frustrated, and posted things like: Stop speculating, everyone! PEOPLE, WE DON'T KNOW IF THESE EVENTS ARE RELATED.
Fair enough — but why, exactly, can't we speculate? "Speculation" has become a dirty word, associated with irresponsibly suggesting things that may not be true. But it also means looking at the facts and wondering if something might be true — and this is an extremely normal and natural reaction to an unfolding event.
I imagine that many people who live with partners or roommates were speculating last night — talking out loud about how the events in Watertown could be related to the marathon, or (even worse) someone else could be terrorizing the Boston area. This is a completely harmless activity. Either way, we found out the truth today. If speculation had been wrong, we would have known, and we would have adjusted our understanding of events accordingly.
Speculating on Twitter or Gawker or other forums, for most of us, is just talking. We're wondering out loud, processing out loud, sharing our thoughts and theories as our brains attempt to make sense of a major event. The people who get angry at that type of conversation just aren't being realistic about how people think — you can make people feel bad for speculating, but then they'll just be doing it privately instead of talking with each other, and I don't think it's an improvement.
A news outlet must be more careful, but I honestly don't think it's irresponsible to speculate on CNN either, as long as they stress that they don't have the facts yet. I wasn't watching CNN, so I don't know how they handled it, but the local feed that I found was speculating responsibly — they spent most of the broadcast covering what they knew, but they also brought up the possibility that Watertown could be related to the marathon, while making it clear that it could also NOT be related. I have no problem with this whatsoever. Leaving this possibility out of the conversation completely would have been strange.
A few kinds of speculation are irresponsible: First, the kind where a news organization implies that they know something is true, when they really don't. If the audience is getting the message that something is true, when in fact it's unknown, they have moved from speculation to lying — they're just doing it with question marks.
Second, speculation about the guilt or innocence of particular people (or groups of people) should be kept to a minimum, because it's irresponsible to call someone a suspect before law enforcement identifies him as one. Often, there are consequences for the person long after the truth comes out. So, I think everyone, including the media, should make an effort to stress that a person could be innocent. I wanted news organizations to say, for example, "Yes, it's true that police are questioning a Saudi national, but they have NOT said that he is a suspect. He could be a victim or a witness."
I see people getting mad about all kinds of speculation, however, including speculation that does not implicate potentially innocent people. I follow a sports team that doesn't like to disclose injury information, and every time fans speculate about an injured player's status or likely recovery time, a few people freak out, "Stop speculating!! Stop being twitter doctors!! We'll know when we know!!" Yet, wondering and talking about the situation is extremely natural and harmless.
Last night, the suspects in Watertown were described as suspects in a shooting, a car jacking, and bomb-throwing. I have no problem with people wondering if they were guilty of the marathon bombing too — this is very different from wondering if someone bombed the marathon because he was photographed with a backpack.
As it turned out, we were right — they did bomb the marathon. But if I had woken up to learn otherwise, I wouldn't have been upset that I thought differently for a few hours. Wondering if something is true, and then learning what is actually true, is something humans do all day — and it's fine!