You may have heard the inspirational story yesterday about a Boston Marathon runner who collapsed just short of the finish and was unable to continue, but found himself carried across the line by four fellow runners. The story embodied a spirit of resilience and strength, and the idea of "Boston Strong": people uniting in a time of crisis to get the job done. Too bad it didn't really happen that way.
The story went viral after Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery tweeted a series of photos Monday afternoon with sentimental captions. Example:
Determined, the two new saviors lifted his legs. He had just a few hundred feet to go. They would get him there pic.twitter.com/5tXvNyDGUJ
— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) April 21, 2014
Media outlets, bolstered by Twitter's ease of embedding media-rich tweets, quickly picked up on the story. Here's a sampling of headlines:
You'll notice not a single one of these stories provide even the most basic elements of a news story. If you've read everything in this post until now, you still don't know the name of the man who collapsed, nor the names of those who helped him up.
Adam Hurst is a 38-year-old from Massachusetts. He wore bib number 28978, and did indeed collapse a few hundred yards from the finish. He was immediately assisted by 53-year-old Texan Jim Grove and 47-year-old Minnesota resident Michael Johnson. Two other runners briefly helped out, and for a moment the four did carry Hurst toward the finish line.
Then they dropped him.
Hurst made it the rest of the way to the finish on his own two feet, with support from Grove and Johnson. The finish line video above [Edit: Removed by demand of Universal Sports. View the video here, and scan to the 4:00:00 mark] clearly shows Hurst struggling, but he crosses the finish line under his own power—not in the arms of four Good Samaritans.
So how did a common and not-especially-rare instance of competitors helping one another become a heartbreaking and inspirational story of courage and resilience? In Wesley Lowery's defense, he never explicitly said that the fallen runner was carried across the finish line. His flowery and sentimental photo captions, however, suggest it strongly, and he asserts that five people crossed the finish line together, something the video clearly shows didn't happen. He's also done nothing to clarify that Hurst was carried only a short distance—and then, as appears in the video, dropped on the pavement.
The media went with the more inspirational story, though, for the oldest and most basic reason of all: it was, as they say, too good to check. And this brings us back to an unfortunately recurring theme. The Internet's viral hamster wheel isn't driven, as many think it is, by snark and negativity, but rather by sappy glurge that people share because it makes them feel good to do so. Time and again, media outlets report these elevating narratives, only to eventually learn they aren't actually true, by which time everyone has moved on to the next one. If you want to talk cynicism, we can start with a media that thinks we're too dumb to want anything more or better than these sloppily-reported stories on the triumph of the human spirit.
What's worst is that the prevailing narrative is an insult to Adam Hurst. He accepted help along the way, as did every runner who grabbed a water or sports drink. But he crossed the finish line on his own. Hurst dedicated his run to the Hoyt Foundation, an organization that benefits the disabled, and accounted for more than $5,000 in donations to Hoyt. That's the real story, and it's more than good enough.
Update (5:44 p.m.): Wesley Lowery has published his own (albeit already-corrected) version of the events, and taken umbrage with our own. We thus find it necessary to illustrate exactly what happened, using Wes's own photos and video and information from the Boston Marathon website.
You can see from this photo that Wes is witnessing the events from in front of the Lord & Taylor building. The video in that article shows Hurst being picked up directly in front of the building. We know from the Boston Marathon finish line video (see up top) that Hurst is let go while on top of the crosswalk nearest to the finish line. The total distance: 161 yards. Hurst is carried for roughly half of them before demanding he be released and allowed to run the rest of the course himself.
We don't know why Wesley Lowery has been so insistent about this, or why he spent all day a block from the finish line and didn't realize it (he tweeted that he watched Hurst be carried "for blocks," when the actual amount of travel was half a block). His article still insists this all went down with the finish line "blocks away"; we hope he'll make yet another correction soon.