Opinion

Boston bombing: Media haste makes mistakes

The rush for information about the Chechen suspects in the Boston bombing has led to mistaken reporting and pointing to innocents. The authorities, though, have not misled the public. It is important to let them do their jobs, and not rush to a judgment that may well be false.

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    A neighbor is escorted to safety as police surround a home while searching for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in Watertown, Mass., April 19. Op-ed contributor Joshua Foust writes: 'The Boston police and the FBI deserve tremendous praise for being restrained in their public statements, cautious about what they say in press conferences, and quick in identifying and locating the two alleged bombers.'
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Ever since Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, people have been desperately looking for information about the suspects: Who did it? Why? Is it possible to piece together what happened? The media rush to figure out who was responsible has led to some dramatic reporting mistakes. By being more cautious in their coverage, the media can avoid those mistakes in the future.

Police on Thursday night identified two young men, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as suspects for the bombing. They fled war-torn Chechnya as refugees at an early age, but there is much we still don’t know about their backstory. What we do know, however, is that much of the speculation about the identities of the bombers during this week has been wrong. What does that mean?

Considering how many photos and videos of the bombing were available immediately after, it is probably no surprise that Internet forums sprang into action to try to identify the possible identity of the bomber. Chief among these was Reddit.com, which created an entire section of the website devoted to combing through images and video for clues. Many of these efforts were far off the mark, for instance, suggesting someone in torn clothing running away after the first explosion was suspect because he wasn't crouching or stunned as others were. Reddit contributors falsely accused many people of being suspects when they were not.

Recommended: Do you know Chechnya? Take the quiz

A little bit of bad information could do a lot of damage.

Mainstream media aren’t immune, either: The New York Post mistakenly identified a high school student, Salah Barhoun, as a bombing suspect. After seeing his picture on TV and all over social media, he sought help at a police station to clear his name. On Thursday, CNN, Fox News, and the AP mistakenly reported that the Boston police had made an arrest. Within hours, all three outlets had to walk back and retract their earlier reporting. (The Christian Science Monitor picked up the AP story and for a time also featured the mistake on its website.)

There are some lessons that can be learned from this experience.

The rush to report a piece of information first can lead to regrettable errors. Despite claims to have cross-checked information, even reputable news organizations can get important facts wrong in the scramble to be first out the gate with news. The initial reports about who the police were looking for turned out to be wrong. Thursday night’s revelation that the two suspects were actually young refugees from Chechnya showed just how wrong the initial speculation can be.

The authorities, on the other hand, have not misled the public. On the contrary, the Boston police and the FBI deserve tremendous praise for being restrained in their public statements, cautious about what they say in press conferences, and quick in identifying and locating the two alleged bombers. So relying on what officials say, rather than fast-breaking media segments, is a good way to stay ahead in the information game.

The third lesson to keep in mind is context. Experts on domestic terrorism like J.M. Berger have been analyzing the bombing and the quality of information about it in excruciating, impressive detail. Other experts, such as Sarah Kendzior – a PhD anthropologist with deep expertise in the former Soviet Union – have been expressing skepticism and urging caution as new details about the two young men emerge. When analysts write that two people who immigrated to the United States as children suggest that there is a connection to Chechnya’s conflict with Russia, they are being irresponsible.

Caution and skepticism, then, is the name of the game now. Boston police and the FBI will undoubtedly release more information over time. It is important to let them do their jobs, and not rush to a judgment that may well be false.

Joshua Foust is a national security columnist with the PBS's "Need to Know." Follow him on Twitter  @joshuafoust.

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