April 17, 2013

CNN’s John King this afternoon broke some enormous news. A suspect had been identified in the Boston Marathon bombings. From CNN.com:

The breakthrough came from analysis of video from a department store near the site of the second explosion. Video from a Boston television station also contributed to the progress, said the source, who declined to be more specific but called it a significant development.

King had more. The CNN reporter gave a description of the suspect — well, not a description, but rather a categorization: “Dark-skinned” male.





Here’s the transcript that sparked the tweets. King was speaking on CNN’s air:

I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources, who is a law enforcement official, that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words, I’m not going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people that will take offense even at saying that.

Some caveats here: This was a breaking-news situation, or at least CNN thought it was. And in a story like this, reporters justifiably feel pressure to pass along any and all details that they extract from their law-enforcement sources. After all, why wouldn’t you?

Well, in this case, you wouldn’t because “dark-skinned male” is useless information that borders on inflammatory. King apparently approached this tidbit with a mindset of restraint, saying that he withheld certain details that he learned from his killer source. So why didn’t he put “dark-skinned” into that same basket? If the police were searching for this individual, what assistance would the “dark-skinned” description offer? Should King have mentioned that the suspect had two eyes and a nose?

And identifying characteristics quickly seemed to have little relevance here: Authorities had arrested the suspect, as CNN reported today as well. Then we found out that the authorities had done no such thing. Official sources are now very much on the record denying CNN’s report of an arrest in the case.

So the network piled one failure—a “dark-skinned” suspect—on top of another—an arrest that didn’t exist. It’s all proof that you can say “abundance of caution” over and over without actually acting on it. In looking back at the reportorial failure, King noted that “part of this reflects on us,” but part of it also reflects on sources and authorities. That’s not exactly taking ownership.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.