America's big week of teachable moments; From Boston Marathon bombing to ricin letter to President

Ricin. Pressure cookers. Anhydrous ammonia. Chechnya. It's been a busy week for Americans trying to understand the big events unfolding across the country.

News events are teachable moments. But usually the learning comes in increments. War breaks out in Libya, and suddenly we all find the North African country on a map and pick out its capital city.

But this week's breaking news served up strange terms and locations with an unusual velocity that kept Wikipedia humming, talk-show bookers jumping and experts racing to pitch themselves to the media. People who have spent their lives toiling away at the history of pressure cookers hoped to get their 15 minutes of fame. (FYI: About the same time it takes to prepare a meal using one of the pots.)

These days, we can actually quantify just how eager people are to learn more about what's in the news. We can see that on Wikipedia, the crowdsourced online encyclopedia, 250,000 people an hour visited its Chechnya page Friday morning when news broke that the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings might be from the North Caucuses. (Look it up.)

At times, the Chechnya page alone -- which had averaged 2,000 to 3,000 page views a day -- was even getting more traffic than the Wikipedia home page.

But Wikipedia users were diving deeper. Eleven of the top 20 pages on the site at 8 a.m. EDT Friday were related to Chechnya, hitting topics like Chechen language, maps, history, the Beslan school-hostage crisis and Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

The trend carried throughout the week. Wikipedia traffic shows that Patriots' Day and Boston Marathon bombings soared Monday. Ricin searches surged on Tuesday and Wednesday. The castor-oil plant (where ricin comes from, but you knew that) got a boost on Wednesday. On Thursday, people wrangled info about West, Texas.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, in Washington, D.C., says the speed of this week's stories and the public's demand to know more, right now, may actually be driving the speed of the investigation. Viewer access to technology, social media and the 24/7 cable-news feed has fostered a need to know that triggers a constant stream, morsel by morsel, of information that "builds the puzzle very quickly," he said.

Newsrooms have had to zoom up to speed on a different topic every day -- it's Tuesday, so it must be ricin. West, Texas, the city, shouldn't be confused with the huge arid chunk of the Lone Star State. And Chechen-U.S. relations are, well, complicated.

Reporters and producers reach out to outlets like ProfNet, PR Newswire's site that connects them with nearly 50,000 experts. ProfNet provides that "very niche" person who can explain something to the public, said Sandra Azzollini, vice president of online communities. After the Texas explosion, that included chemistry professors and disaster consultants.

Universities, think tanks and others pushed their faculty and staff onto news shows. For instance, Islamic-studies professor -- and former Pakistani ambassador to Great Britain -- Akbar Ahmed represented American University on the WTTG/Fox 5 morning show in Washington.

He explained how the young bombing suspects' sense of revenge may have overridden their sense of tribal honor, a concept he writes about in his new book, "The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam."

It's a win-win-win for the university, the TV station and the public clamoring to know more.

Rahm Emanuel, Chicago mayor and former chief of staff for President Barack Obama, once said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." You could say the same for big news events, especially for those who wait, always wait for that chance to teach us about their world.

(Contact Carolyn McAtee Cerbin at Contact Danielle Alberti at

Print this article Back to Top