April 18, 2013

(Courtesy Newseum)

Behold the latest scoop from the New York Post: A story that singles out two men in a photo taken at Monday’s Boston Marathon. “BAG MEN,” screams the cover headline. “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”

On a factual level, the New York Post’s “BAG MEN” story doesn’t fall into the same category of its posts from earlier this week that 12 people had died from the marathon bombings. That’s because it might well be true. Have a look at the central contention of the story:

Investigators probing the deadly Boston Marathon bombings are circulating photos of two men spotted chatting near the packed finish line, The Post has learned.

In the photos being distributed by law-enforcement officials among themselves, one of the men is carrying a blue duffel bag. The other is wearing a black backpack in the first photo, taken at 10:53 a.m., but it is not visible in the second, taken at 12:30 p.m.

Law-enforcement officials distribute a massive amount of data “among themselves,” especially in the aftermath of something like the Boston Marathon bombings. Authorities have asked the public for their photos and videos taken on the day of the marathon, so it’s possible that hundreds, if not thousands, of such things have gotten law-enforcement pass-around.

Yet the New York Post places one such image on its cover — as if this is the key photo. Even the New York Post acknowledges in its story that it’s unclear if these fellows are the same people investigators are now zeroing in on. (CBS News has reported that they’re not). The upshot is that the New York Post randomly decided to throw a couple of fellows in front of the public and cast them in a suspicious, bag-men kind of light, even though the paper never IDs them as suspects.

On “CBS This Morning,” John Miller explained how this New York Post piece, in all likelihood, came about:

Those pictures were on the Internet yesterday morning, and then they started going viral on different sites. And then different intelligence fusion centers around the country pick those up and they post them into bulletins and say, ‘Any law enforcement agencies who can name these people, we’ll take that information.’ Then it ends up leaking back to the newspaper, so it comes out in one big circle.

As Gawker and Deadspin have explained, the New York Post’s photo emerged from crowdsourced investigations conducted on Reddit and elsewhere on the Web. Also: The Internet’s sleuths determined that the fellow in the blue track jacket was — wouldn’t you know! — a track athlete at Revere High School. He’s a Moroccan-American and reportedly rushed to the courthouse yesterday to clear his name.

New York Post PR rep Suzanne Halpin didn’t respond to a request for comment on this matter, continuing the several-days-long silence of the paper following its grievously inaccurate reporting. The question for the New York Post relates to context. Did the crime-and-justice reporters for the paper not know that the photo they’d published had been extensively shared on the Internet — and that it’s no surprise whatsoever that the cops shared it “among themselves”? Did the New York Post’s crime-and-justice reporters not know that authorities had likely done the same thing with many other pieces of photographic and video evidence from Monday’s marathon?

Why not mention those considerations? Because they would diminish the shock value of a sensationalistic photo.

Filtering stuff that bubbles up on the Internet is precisely the work that traditional news organizations get paid to do. Here, the New York Post chose not to.

UPDATE: New York Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan has issued a statement to my colleague David Fahrenthold:

We stand by our story. 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.

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