Mistaken reports on Boston bombing arrest highlight dangers for media in anonymous sources and speculation
Confusion exploded across television news outlets and social media today, as several reputable news outlets reported that a suspect had been identified and arrested in Monday’s bombing at the Boston marathon, only to turn around and recant the news as official sources denied the reports.
Once again, the culprit seemed to be anonymous law enforcement sources – also blamed for the numerous erroneous reports in early reporting on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Reports from those mistaken sources became a part of cable news’ instant round robin of speculation and theorizing, even while some anchors cautioned about the dangers of speculating with so little information. And as the conflicting reports piled up on Twitter, theaudience had the sense of watching a media meltdown occur in real time.
In this case, mistaken sources led CNN, Fox News, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe to report at various times this afternoon that a suspect had been identified and arrested in connection with the crime.
Other news outlets, including NBC and CBS insisted that no arrest had taken place; eventually sources in the Boston police department and Department of Justice denied an arrest had taken place, issuing official statements to quell the furor.
“Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the Marathon attack,” read a terse post on Twitter by Boston police, issued about an hour after CNN’s initial report that a suspect has been arrested.
CNN anchor John King reported around 1:30 p.m. that police had identified a suspect in the bombing. About 15 minutes later, he added that an arrest had been made, citing sources in Boston police department, backed by a former presidential homeland security advisor-turned-CNN contributor, Fran Townsend.
Fox News also sent a message on Twitter at 2:05 p.m. saying suspect had been arrested; seven minutes later, the Boston Globe tweeted an arrest was “imminent” and three minutes after that, the Associated Press reported on Twitter that a suspect had been taken into custody.
But during that time, from about 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., NBC and CBS insisted no arrest had been made. “All we can say for certain, is that all of our sources say no arrest,” said Pete Williams, NBC’s justice correspondent. CBs pronounced on twitter no arrest had been made just after 2 p.m.
So what happened?
By 2:33 p.m., CNN reporter Joe Johns was quoting anonymous sources at the Justice Department – one of whom said he or she “triple-checked” the information – to say there had been no arrest and no suspect identified.
“I’m told they have now checked as high as the attorney general of the United States,” King added, returning to CNN’s air at 2:45 p.m. to confirm no one had been arrested. “I went back to the Boston law enforcement source who said ‘We got ‘em.’ I said ‘Got an identification or arrest?’ The sources says ‘Can’t talk to you right now.’ Says there’s significant blowback at the leaks.”
King had also drawn ire on Twitter an hour earlier, noting that analysis of video footage had police zeroing in on a “dark skinned male.”
“I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things," he added. “I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official.” Presumably, the same official who told him about the arrest?
That reporting drew a sharp Twitter retort from PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, who noted “Disturbing that it's OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect only as 'a dark-skinned individual.'"
By the end of the day, the National Association of Black Journalists had also weighed in, issuing a statement objecting to the vague description as an invitation to racial profiling. "There have been various reports identifying a potential suspect as 'a dark-skinned individual.' This terminology is not only offensive, but also offers an incomplete picture of relevant facts about the potential person of interest's identity," read a statement issued by the organization. "When conveying information for the public good, and which can help law enforcement with the help of a vigilant public to keep the country safe, it's important that such facts be put into proper context.
"NABJ in no way encourages censorship but does encourage news organizations to be responsible when reporting about race, to report on race only when relevant and a vital part of a story. Ultimately this helps to avoid mischaracterizations which might encourage potential bias or discrimination against a person or a group of people based on race or ethnicity."
(Full disclosure: I serve as head of NABJ's Media Monitoring Committee, though I had nothing to do with writing or distributing this statement. Click here to see the NABJ's style guide for tips on when to refer to race in news stories.)
What also dismayed critics was watching CNN anchors Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper continue to fill long minutes this afternoon speculating on the situation with Juliette Kayyem, a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, even after the embarrassing circumstance of retracting reports on an arrest.
What seemed obvious, after the back and forth today, is that warning about the dangers of speculating doesn’t help, if it doesn’t stop you from speculating, anyway.