A Lesson in Underreporting: The Media's Neglect of the Philly 4th of July Jam Stampede

When thousands of July 4th concertgoers stampede away in panic and the media barely report the chaos, something seems off.

It's the kind of thing I normally wouldn't notice: "Attendees at Philly 4th of July Jam Run For Safety During Fireworks, No Injuries Reported." A headline like that might not make me click for further details, as the destruction was by no means on the scale of such recent tragedies as April's Boston Marathon bombing.

But is lasting damage all that matters?

Being a part of the mayhem on Thursday night painted a different picture for me. I am grateful that whatever caused the insanity -- rumors have swirled of a firecracker, a BB gun or just "herd mentality" nerves -- didn't leave anyone dead, but I am frankly horrified at the media's underreporting of what truly was a high-stakes diaspora of families, students and Philadelphians around 11 p.m. on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

When thousands of celebrating citizens in an urban environment run for their lives in a matter of seconds, it's newsworthy. When I followed human instinct and joined the massive crowd running away from Logan Square during what should have been the joyous grand finale of the fireworks display -- not knowing if this was nothing or Boston -- a few thoughts went through my mind.

What was it? How many were hurt? When is it safe to stop running? How many minutes until my mom calls me to see if I'm okay and my phone goes off with a New York Times breaking news alert?

But the breaking news never came, as apparent as the intensity of the situation was to everyone there. Knowing full well that Twitter was the most efficient place to find out what really happened, I refreshed and refreshed, but the Philly police only tweeted: "It was a fun evening on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway tonight. Thank you everyone for making it a nice night, and have a safe trip home!"

The next morning, there was still no explanation to be found on Twitter or any national news sources. Articles eventually popped up only on Philly.com and NBC Philadelphia interviewing concertgoers while shutting down rumors of gunfire.

"Stampede in the 1700 block of Parkway caused by nervous people hearing fireworks reverberate off buildings. No danger!" tweeted the SEPTA police chief. However, an officer told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I heard it. It was just a motorcycle backfire. People thought it was shooting and started stampeding." These were just two of the many conflicting reports, none of which could be officially confirmed by a reputable news source.

The city's director of public safety grossly minimized the mayhem, telling reporters that no matter what, "you're going to have a little craziness."

Even on the small handful of local news stories written on the event, readers have commented to recount their fear during the incident and express their dissatisfaction with its publicity.

In my mad online hunt for news coverage of the pandemonium, I discovered that two teenagers were actually non-fatally shot at the same free concert last year, and that this legitimate gunfire had seemingly no effect on the concert's openness. Additionally, the 2011 jam apparently had a stampede fitting the same M.O. as this year's. Seriously? This secret pattern of panic would have discouraged my attendance this year, had I known.

In this sense, why didn't I think of it before? Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in an crowded area for an important milestone in a major city. Without any sort of bag-checking security to get in. In 2013. Was this a disaster waiting to happen?

Even with shootings and explosions in similar scenarios occurring with alarming frequency, would Philly wait until something tragic actually transpired to up security? Was the instantaneous stampede of thousands, from crying children to panicked mothers, not enough to publicly admit the inherent instability in the concert? And perhaps most conspicuously, why, even if the authorities were deeming the night a success, would the media not report such a noteworthy incidence at a high-profile event that terrified so many?

Whether something with lasting devastating effects happens on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in July 2014 or July 2024, Philadelphia should be proactive now about ensuring a safe environment and not wait to face the consequences.

But even if nothing bad ever happens, the media has a responsibility to report. I don't know if Thursday's stampede was kept under wraps intentionally or if word of mouth didn't reach the proper journalists. Maybe it did and they reacted as I would have had I not been there: "Oh, but it's fine now." So, media, I guess the next time the largest free concert in America ends in widespread panic, try to acknowledge it.

Logging on to a major news source Friday morning to find out that Valerie Bertinelli adopted a kitten, rather than finding out the cause of my late-night chaos, just seems wrong.