Less than an hour later, CBS tweeted, “JUST IN: Man sought as possible suspect is WHITE MALE, wearing white baseball cap on backwards, gray hoodie and black jacket.”
In repose to one or perhaps both of the reports, the FBI released a scathing statement cautioning journalists not to jump to conclusions:
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.
Here are some examples of the other “unintended consequences” wrought by journalists’ misinformation in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings:
Journalists hounded a victim and his neighbors. After the attack, authorities spoke with a Saudi national who was a witness to and victim of the bombings. But several media outlets mistakenly reported that he was a “person of interest” or a “suspect,” and the New York Post even bragged about this “world-beating scoop.”
The Wall Street Journal reported more bombs. On Monday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that police had found five additional explosive devices, on top of the two that had been deployed. It was only minutes later that federal authorities dismissed that report as inaccurate.
The New York Post gave an inflated death count. As the country braced for what could have been even more tragic numbers of casualties, the New York Post tried to rush to be first to report the news. This led them to incorrectly inform the country “there are at least 12 dead,” a number they later defended that count, four times the actual number of fatalities, by saying, “a law-enforcement source told The Post it could be as high as 12.”
There are plenty of good things that can come out of real-time news reports in the wake of a tragedy, even if some of those reports prove wrong. But when the incident involves terror felt at a national level, inaccurate reports can terrorize the community even further. And they can terrorize some groups specifically; the predisposition of news organizations to place blame at the feet of Muslims, Arabs, or any given “dark skinned individual” can lead to false reports, unnecessary suspicions, and the accusation of a group of people, writ large, with no specifics to identify who might be the real suspect.