Several major media outlets appeared to jump the gun Wednesday afternoon in reporting an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Atlanta-based CNN was the first to report a possible suspect at 1:30 p.m. EDT.
CNN sent out a "breaking news alert" saying, "Investigators believe they have identified a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, a source who has been briefed on the investigation told CNN's John King." Twenty minutes later, the network said an arrest had been made, citing multiple unnamed sources. Fox News and The Boston Globe followed suit.
The Associated Press, which has a reputation for being cautious, quickly posted on Twitter: "BREAKING: Law enforcement official: Boston Marathon bomb suspect in custody, expected in federal court." It said its information came from "a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation." But several media outlets -- including The New York Times, CBS News and NBC News -- held firm, saying no arrest had been made.
Within an hour, CNN began backtracking, as did other media outlets. The Boston Police officially tweeted a denial.
At about 3 p.m., the Department of Justice 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, which didn't respond to inquiries for comment, 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."
Frank Sesno, who worked at CNN from 1984 to 2002 and is now a media professor at George Washington University, said mistakes are common in these situations.
"Almost every time a story like this happens, someone in law enforcement says things they don't know or that prove to be wrong, then organizations have to reel it back in," Sesno said. "I don't condone it. Nobody wants to see it. But it's kind of the language of live. Things are dynamic and changeable."
He recalled reporting on air after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings that law enforcement was seeking two men of Middle Eastern descent. "It ended up being a bum lead," he said. "We were reporting what we were being told. My reporting was correct. The information was wrong."
Chuck Roberts, who worked at CNN Headline News (now HLN) from 1982 to 2010, said he can't fault CNN at this point "until I have better evidence. As a journalist, I'm not proud of what happened. These are storied news outlets that got it wrong, compromised by seemingly reliable federal sources."
By Rodney Ho - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT)
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