Tag Archives: Boston marathon bombing

A Squirmable Moment

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.

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Rolling Stone Fluffed and Buffed

By Casey Bukro

Rolling Stone magazine turned Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into a cover boy in a recent edition.

The public reaction was explosive. CNN reported that “outrage is percolating across social media” because of what some saw as the magazine’s glorification of an alleged terrorism suspect.

Rolling Stone editors did not see it that way, stating that “our hearts go out to the victims” of the bombing, but that its cover story “falls within the traditions of journalism” and the magazine’s commitment to “serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day.”

It’s not as if the magazine portrays Tsarnaev as a blameless victim. It’s story about him is titled: “The making of a monster.”

The magazine usually devotes space to rock stars and celebrities.

Handsome and young with long curly dark hair, Tsarnaev posted the picture of himself online. It has been published widely by media outlets.

Justifying its focus on Tsarnaev, Rolling Stones editors pointed out that he is in the same age group as many of the magazine’s readers, making it important to delve into how “a tragedy like this happens.”

That touched off what could be described as a war of Tsarnaev photos. Boston Magazine showed a bloodied Tsarnaev in photos taken by a Massachusetts State Police officer at the moment of the bombing suspects capture.

“This is the real Boston bomber,” the policeman told the magazine. “Not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”

The policeman was suspended for releasing the photos, which could be important evidence in Tsarnaev’s trial. Boston Magazine also could be challenged on the ethics of publishing the photos that are part of a continuing criminal investigation.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics asks journalists to “support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.” And they are urged to act independently, even when that appears contrary to strong public sentiment. Others believe the Rolling Stone violated the code’s caution against pandering to lurid curiosity.

Tsarnaev is innocent until proven guilty, and there are always more than two sides to the story. Comments in social media even reveal some sympathy for Tsarnaev.

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.