February 22, 2012

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Fort Worth police screwed up mightily during an investigation of drug dealing and drug use at Texas Christian University. Eighteen people, 15 of them students, four of them — gasp — members of the Horned Frogs football team got popped on various charges, and the police released photos, which were run in local media.

While the original reports were somewhat breathless, a bigger problem was that one of those photos was of the wrong man. Austin Carpenter was named as a suspect at large because one undercover officer bought drugs in a parking lot from a guy named Austin, who drove off in a vehicle registered to someone with the last name Carpenter.

There was, as it turned out, an Austin Carpenter police wanted to talk to, just not the guy whose photo ended up in the news. (That Austin Carpenter, who did not attend TCU, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “This is not going to help me in my job search.”)

On Monday, the Star-Telegram self-ombudsed its coverage. Managing editor/digital Kathy Vetter, the breaking news editor on duty when the story broke, found it to be good, mostly: “I wish we had done a better of job of emphasizing the relatively small-time dealing outlined in the arrest warrant affidavits,” she writes. Vetter says the paper erred on the side of publishing first:

“Old media’s” role as gatekeeper is long gone. When police release information from a drug sting, you can bet it will be all over the Internet in minutes, no matter what a single media entity decides to do. People can examine the same data we have and make up their own minds.
Some have questioned whether we should have published the photographs of those arrested. It’s a fair question. In the end, people want to see the faces of the accused, and when we have photos, we publish them, unless extraordinary circumstances are involved.

Carpenter’s photo was one of those published Wednesday afternoon, Vetter says in an email. After Carpenter’s father emailed the Star-Telegram, the paper confirmed the mistake with the police. It took about an hour. “At that point, we deleted his photo and ‘his’ arrest warrant affadavit,” Vetter says, “and added a line in the main story saying that he was the wrong man.”

“Probably about an hour after that, we posted an interview with him on our site,” Vetter continues. “We did not use his photo with that story online or in print the next day.”

The attorney for the Austin Carpenter police eventually located has expressed great anticipation for any court proceedings that might follow. The family of Austin Carpenter the Mistaken, which is prominent in the region, is considering its options. A Massachusetts man is suing a GateHouse paper for mistakenly publishing his photo with a crime story and failing to correct it prominently. || Related: 5 tips for getting photo IDs right

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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