False information clouds coverage of Boston bombing

Early on Thursday, the New York Post began circulating photographs which showed the two men suspected of planting two bombs at the Boston Marathon. However, authorities have not released any images of the suspects or officially confirmed that they are looking for two men.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | April 18, 2013

In the aftermath of the double bombing of the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured more than 170 others, false information has clouded the reports of the Boston Marathon bombing. With the 24-hour news cycle and social media disseminating information faster than journalists can analyze it, the urge to report quickly has in some cases overtaken the need to report correctly.

Hours earlier, trusted news sources such as the AP, Reuters, CNN, Fox News and the Boston Globe had reported that the FBI had identified a sole suspect. The outlets said that the suspect was in custody, only having to retract their statements after the Boston Police department set the record straight.

“BREAKING: Law enforcement official: Arrest imminent in Boston Marathon bombing, suspect to be brought to court,” tweeted the AP.

CNN’s John King told viewers that a suspect had been identified and had been arrested; the network later released a statement, Politico reported, saying “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.”

In a blog post on the decision whether or not to confirm an arrest, editors for Breaking News called it a balance between speed and rumor control.

Even before jumping on the “identification of suspects” bandwagon, the New York Post reported that there were at least 12 confirmed fatalities mere hours after the bombing, Mediaite noted.

In fact, three people died in the blasts, including Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi. However, an article on the Huffington Post falsely reported that her friend, Zhou Danling, was the third victim.

How does this kind of sloppy reporting end up in major news sources? Many outlets have quoted “source close to the information” in their reporting. In various online reports that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the attack, none of the major news organisations have named the sources of their breaking information.

In a statement, the FBI urged news outlets to be more diligent about the veracity of what they are reporting. “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.”

In cases like this, news sites look to social media as souces, quoting Facebook or Reddit pages, such as with the Jeff Baumann reporting. But these are easily susceptible to false information, and Facebook and Rwitter soon were overrun with misleading or entirely fabricated images and stories.

Perhaps the most widely-spread is the photo of a young girl in a red shirt, with the caption “She died today. She was running the Marathon for the Sandy Hook kids. She’s 8. Repost for respect of her.”

Another picture which was popular on Twitter showed a man handcuffed and kneeling in the Boston Common, surrounded by police. It was retweeted hundreds of times before it was revealed to be unrelated to the bombing.

Craig Silverman on Poynter said that the torrent of rumors, hoaxes, reporting errors and misinformation is par for the course in today’s quest for reporting speed.

Caution in reporting is now more important than ever, however. Mark Blank-Settle, of the BBC College of Journalism tweeted that “On days like this, Twitter shows its best & worst: loads of info at huge speed, but often false & sometimes deliberately so”.

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