Let's remember Richard Jewell as we cover Boston 'suspects'

The New York Post is running a front page headline "Bag Men" with what is reported to be an image of men it says feds are looking for. One of the young men in the Post's front-page image has since spoken out to ABC to say he was “shocked to see his face pop up on television and all over social media.”

The story accompanying the Post's front page article says:

“The attached photos are being circulated in an attempt to identify the individuals highlighted therein,” said an e-mail obtained by The Post. “Feel free to pass this around to any of your fellow agents elsewhere.”  The tabloid goes on to say that authorities have "identified two potential suspects."

Gawker's Max Read reports that Redditors “managed to figure out pretty quickly that the guy in the blue track jacket almost certainly isn’t a bomber." Reddit, one of the places where the photos were first seen, has a list of innocent suspects and has been pleading with users not to use the pictures or name the people in them.

Online sites are alive with amatuer guesses of who might be involved in the bombing.  The images are becoming memes and there are even names being given to people who show up in the photos like "the blue robe guy" "the terror team" and the "brown sweatshirt guy." There is not a shred of evidence -- not one official statement -- to indicate any of these people are suspects or connected to the bombing in any way other than being on a sidewalk in Boston.

Today's reporting reminds me a lot of what happened in the days after the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996. In that case, a security guard named Richard Jewell was repeatedly characterized by the media as a person of interest. We now know, of course, that he had nothing to do with the bombing. Jewell died in 2007, after he won settlements with NBC and CNN and was still pursuing lawsuits against other media for defamation.

We can cause great harm to individuals and to the investigation when we suggest people are suspects and when we show images with red circles around the people, making them appear to be targets.

In addition to the harm that comes to an individual, there is harm to the investigation in that the public begins to believe authorities know who they are looking for, and there is no need to help further.

Let's remember this is not the first time the Post has reported there were suspects in this case; on Monday, the Post said that authorities suspected a Saudi national. Others, including The Blaze, are highlighting speculation that there is some sort of high-level coverup involving Saudis and a man who was once a "person of interest." Some have been reporting the Boston story especially well. NBC's Pete Williams was notably cautious Wednesday; when others were reporting an arrest in the Boston case, Williams said the information was wrong.

Especially today, it would be helpful for journalists and journalism students to read this essay from his attorney L. Lin Wood about the media's coverage of the Jewell case.

Here's the point: Slow down. Today, I am thinking of Jewell. Let's not repeat that mistake again.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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