Boston bombing: Bad journalism fuels terrorism hysteria

At a news conference, FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers and other investigators release images taken from a security camera of persons of interest in the twin bombings at the Boston Marathon.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

What is wrong with the New York Post?

Thursday morning, the tabloid newspaper’s front page featured a huge photo of two young men with backpacks, with the giant headline: “Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”

In the online story, the pair’s faces had big red circles around them. Yes, sort of like targets. Turns out, the young men had nothing to do with the blasts.

Thursday afternoon, the Post backpedaled: “Investigators have now cleared the two men whose pictures were circulated last night in an email among law enforcement officials, sources told The Post today. Authorities determined neither had any information or role in Monday’s attacks at the Boston Marathon.”

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After an appropriate hail of criticism, Post Editor Col Allan, incredibly, defended his decision to smear two innocent men. And yes, that was a smear.


“We stand by our story,” Allan said in a statement sent to several news organizations. “The image was emailed to law enforcement agencies yesterday afternoon seeking information about these men, as our story reported. We did not identify them as suspects.”

True. The story didn’t identify the pair by name, and did not call them “suspects.” But by making a lame pun about their backpacks, the Post leaped past journalistic restraint and implied the men were suspects in the case.

ABC News tracked down one of the young men, actually, a teenager, slimed by the Post:

“Salah Barhoun, 17, said he went to the police yesterday to clear his name after he found himself tagged in pictures online. He had just gone to watch the race, he said, but soon after the explosions, he was singled out by Internet sleuths as looking suspicious. Federal authorities passed around images of Barhoun, attempting to learn more information about him, sources told ABC News.”

When the FBI did release photographs of two men it is seeking in connection with the attacks Thursday afternoon, they didn’t look anything like the two young men whose lives the Post tried to ruin.

News organizations have performed spectacularly this week, but it is their unfortunate lapses that will be remembered, and probably taught as cautionary tales.

On Wednesday, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press erroneously reported that an arrest had been made in the case. Other outlets, including The Times, then reported what those other news outlets were saying. NBC and the New York Times did not report the faux arrest, nor did they report what others were saying.

But CNN had a double dose of egg on its face when veteran reporter John King said his sources told him that the arrestee was a “dark-skinned male.” King qualified the statement as much as possible, and cautioned not to leap to conclusions, but once he uttered the phrase, the damage was done.

This kind of reporting feeds into stereotypes and affirm our worst prejudices. A Saudi Arabian kid running from the blast must be the suspect. A couple of swarthy backpack-toting kids watching the race must be the suspects. The New York Post promulgated both those stories.

This is how hysteria starts.

This post was updated on 4/19 at 5 p.m.


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