The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FBI statement to haunt CNN, AP, others

The FBI is not a graduate school of journalism. Yet it sounded like one this afternoon, as it issued this statement:

Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.

That burst of bureaucratic butt-whupping comes in response to reports by CNN and the Associated Press — and others, including the Boston Globe, whose Twitter feed spoke of someone in custody — that authorities had arrested a suspect in Monday’s Boston bombings. They hadn’t.

When contacted about the matter, an AP spokesman referred the Erik Wemple Blog to a story that the wire service published at 3:12 p.m. It reads, in part: “A law enforcement official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press that a suspect was in custody. The official, who was not authorized to divulge details of the investigation, said the suspect was expected in federal court. … The official who spoke to the AP did so on condition of anonymity and stood by the information even after it was disputed. A news briefing was scheduled later Wednesday.”

Based on those words, the AP appears to have relied on a single, anonymous source for what will inevitably rank as one of the top stories of the year — the sort of reportorial behavior that we’ve come to expect from the New York Post.

The Erik Wemple Blog has sent an inquiry to an AP spokesman to confirm the one-sourcedness of the reporting but hadn’t heard back by posting time.

CNN, meanwhile, placed the integrity of its news organization on a broader base of anonymous sources, to judge from this statement from a network spokesperson: “CNN had three credible sources on both local and federal levels. Based on this information, we reported our findings. As soon as our sources came to us with new information, we adjusted our reporting.”

So what’s more troubling: A news organization that gets something terribly wrong based on bad information from a single source, as appears to be the case with the AP? Or a news organization that gets something terribly wrong based on bad information from three sources, as appears to be the case with CNN? Out of an abundance of caution, the Erik Wemple Blog will take some time to think about that one.