Pitfalls of Identifying Bystanders as Bombers

By Casey Bukro

Stupidity is not a crime, and ethical lapses usually will not land you in jail.

But they have consequences, as the New York Post learned when two men sued the tabloid newspaper for showing them in a front-page photo at the height of the search for Boston Marathon Bombing suspects, with a “Bag Men” headline.

CNN reported that the men, 16 and 24-years old, accused the Post of libel, negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy for showing them standing next to each other in the April 18 edition. Also displayed in large letters on the photo were the words: “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The photo appeared three days after the Boston bombing, making it appear that the FBI were searching for them. One of them wore a backpack.

Post editor Col Allan said the Post did not identify the men as “suspects.”

Huffington Post reported outrage at the use of the photo, with some calling it “a new low” and “appalling.”

Later that day, authorities released photos of Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

NBCNEWS.com reported that the two innocent men were stunned to see themselves pictured on the front page of the tabloid and one of them suffered a panic attack.

Minimize harm, advises the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. And be judicious, it says, about naming criminal suspects before they are charged. Though the two men were not  named by the Post, it’s an apt comparison when showing their faces.

The New York Post photo is considered an example in a series of errors and false reports that were rampant during the frenzy of trying to learn motives for the bombing, and who did it.

Crowd sourcing, it turned out, was not as valuable as its supporters might have supposed. Authorities essentially told the public they were not interested in the flood of iPhone photos that were offered of people and things considered suspicious. Instead, authorities zeroed in on the Tsarnaev brothers by using highly sophisticated identification technology.

There’s one more questionable thing about that New York Post photo, and that’s the use of the words “Bag Men.” You don’t have to be from Chicago or New York to know “bag man” is slang for a person who collects money for racketeers, or a mob errand boy.

It was bad enough that two innocent men were linked falsely with the Boston bombing. It got worse when they were tainted with language that implied criminal activity. Words hurt. They also can get you sued.

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About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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