By Casey Bukro
That squirmable moment comes when a journalist racing to get it fast, discovers that he got it wrong.
The stomach lurches, and if it’s bad enough, you might even throw up.
Think the Richard Jewell story. Or two innocent by-standers shown in a front-page photo as possible Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Or the man falsely identified as the Washington Navy Yard shooter because his identification card was found at the scene of 12 murders in Philadelphia.
“Verify before you villify,” says Ben L. Kaufman in CityBeat.Com, recalling the experience of Rollie Chance, mistakenly identified by NBC and CBS as the Navy Yard shooter. Chance said the falsehood took a toll on him.
At least Chance was cleared quickly, unlike the case of Richard Jewell. He was a security guard portrayed as an heroic first responder at the 1966 Olympic Park bombing which took one life and injured more then 100. Then Jewell became the bombing suspect and was identified, but not charged, in what had been described as a “media circus.”
Jewell was cleared by the federal government after nearly three months of coverage that often focused on him, his appearance, personality and his background. Almost a decade later, Eric Rudolph, a violent anti-abortionist, pleaded guilty to the bombing. Jewell died in 2007.
Looking back on that episode, a New York Times reporter, Kevin Sack, who covered the Atlanta bombing, told of his frustration when the Times executive editor at the time, Joseph Lelyveld, ruled against naming Jewell in the newspaper, while the Atlanta Journal and other media named him.
Later, the reporter praised Lelyveld for his “rabbinical wisdom” in resisting heavy competitive pressure to name Jewell as a suspect.
No rabbinical wisdom appeared to be involved when the New York Post ran a front page photo of two men, calling them “Bag Men” and saying they were being sought by authorities in the April Boston Marathon bombing. The men later sued the tabloid for defamation.
Three people died and an estimated 264 were injured in the April bombing, in which brothers Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev later were identified as the suspects. Tamerlan was killed by police and Dzhokar was wounded before his capture.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” Good advice.