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How media got it so wrong on Boston Marathon non-arrest

Confusion roiled across television news outlets and social media Wednesday, 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.

The culprit seemed to be anonymous law enforcement sources. 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, the audience 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 Wednesday 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, the Boston Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice issued 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 had been arrested.

CNN anchor John King reported about 1:30 p.m. that police had identified a suspect. About 15 minutes later, he added that an arrest had been made, citing sources in the Boston Police Department.

Fox News also sent a message on Twitter at 2:05 p.m. saying a 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 a suspect had been taken into custody.

During that time, from about 2 to 2:30, 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 just after 2 p.m. that no arrest had been made.

So what happened?

By 2:33 p.m., CNN reporter Joe Johns was quoting anonymous sources at the Justice Department 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 source says, 'Can't talk to you right now.' Says there's significant blowback at the leaks."

About 3 p.m., the Justice Department in a statement criticized "inaccurate" news stories. "Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting."

CNN sent Huffington Post a statement defending its handling of the story: "CNN had three credible sources on both local and federal levels. Based on this information, we reported our findings. As soon as our sources came to us with new information, we adjusted our reporting."

On Fox News, anchor Megyn Kelly explained the revised reporting on the arrest, saying that the usual journalistic process calls for reporters to rely on trusted sources to confirm information. "It appears in this case some confirmations were issued when perhaps they should not have been," Kelly said.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for the Associated Press, said later in the afternoon that the news service did not "pull back" from its original reporting, but only "added other reporting."

Judy Muller, a former network news correspondent who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, told the New York Times, "I fear we have permanently entered the Age of the Retraction. All the lessons of the past — from Richard Jewell to NPR's announcement of the death of Gabby Giffords to CNN's erroneous report on the Supreme Court Ruling on Obamacare — fail to inform the present. The rush to be first has so thoroughly swallowed up the principal of being right and first that it seems a little egg on the face is now deemed worth the risk."

Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and New York Times was included in this report.

How media got it so wrong on Boston Marathon non-arrest 04/17/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 10:01pm]
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