In the days since the Boston Marathon explosions, there have been more than a handful of high-profile errors in the media, including wrongly reporting there was a suspect in custody within hours of the attack.
Several TV news outlets, including CNN, wrongly reported April 17 that authorities arrested a suspect in the bombing. But, as authorities said again and again, the media just can’t get this part of the story right. They have, in fact, been spectacularly wrong on this score.
The FBI even called out the media’s inaccurate reporting, stating:
“Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. 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.”
Who Was Wrong, Who Was Right?
CNN was one of those outlets with bad information and Talking Points Memo created a “quick mash up” of CNN’s wrong claims about an arrest. At first, CNN reported based on “two sources” that “they have identified a suspect” and then “that an arrest has been made.”
While CNN had it wrong, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer even reminded “I want to be precise and I want to make sure we have it right…it’s much more important to make sure that we’re precise and accurate.” Later, they said they “heard there’s not an arrest yet,” and then former FBI assistant director Tom Fuentes confirmed “there has been no arrest.” Finally, at 2:42 p.m., CNN’s Joe Johns reported his sources said “no arrest has been made.’
During the inaccurate reporting, CNN’s John King went further, claiming the suspect was “a dark-skinned male,” citing an unnamed “law enforcement official,” according to the Huffington Post.
In response, the National Association of Black Journalists called that description “not only offensive” but “an incomplete picture of relevant facts.” The statement went on:
“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.”
A CNN spokesperson told the Huffington Post about the error:
“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.”
Poynter’s Craig Silverman called CNN out for failing to apologize for its inaccurate reporting, especially in contrast with CNN’s various apologies last year for mis-reporting on the Supreme Court’s health care ruling.
“The refusal to acknowledge error — to be accountable — is poisonous for the outlets involved and that only compounds the damage,” Silverman wrote about errors in reporting on the marathon.
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While Fox News didn’t apparently tweet any correction, it did row-back its reporting after 45 minutes to acknowledge “conflicting reports.”
— Fox News (@FoxNews) April 17, 2013
The AP originally reported that there was a suspect in custody, but corrected its report.
After about thirty minutes, the AP tweeted denials of the reported arrest.
BREAKING: Federal officials deny that Boston Marathon bombing suspect is in custody.
— The Associated Press (@AP) April 17, 2013
The AP also published a correction on its website reading:
“In a story April 17 on the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, The Associated Press erroneously reported, citing a law enforcement official who insisted on anonymity, that a suspect was in custody and was expected at the federal courthouse. The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said shortly after the AP report that no arrests had been made. There have been no subsequent indications that the anonymous official’s account was true.”
An exception to the mis-reporting on the arrest came from NBC News. Mediaite reported: “Amid a frenzy of reporting on Wednesday that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing case, NBC News stood out as the only network reporting that no arrest had been made. In the face of increasing evidence that they were incorrect, NBC News stuck to their guns and insisted that there had been no arrest.”
CBS News also didn’t take the bait and join other media outlets with bad reporting, according to Mediaite, which commended NBC News for being the first network to avoid error.
UPDATE: 4/19/2013 7:52 PM ET: Check out iMediaEthics’ latest stories on news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.