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Need for speed leads to erroneous reports of an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing

Two days after explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring over 170, anticipation mounted on Twitter as news organizations reported that there had been a “major breakthrough” in the investigation. At 12:42 p.m., The Associated Press tweeted that authorities had arrested a suspect. CNN, Fox News and The Boston Globe quickly echoed the report.

BREAKING: Law enforcement official: Arrest imminent in Boston Marathon bombing, suspect to be brought to court.

— The Associated Press (@AP) April 17, 2013

As crowds gathered at the federal courts building in Boston to catch a glimpse of the captured suspect, CBS News and others contradicted the reports.

JUST IN: @cbsnews has learned that NO ARREST has been made in Boston Marathon bombing case

— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 17, 2013

Soon, the Boston Police Department joined CBS News and others, denying any arrest had taken place. The Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a statement chastising the media’s false reports and advised it to “exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting,” according to Poynter. 

Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the Marathon attack.

— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 17, 2013

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon and Mallary Jean Tenore compiled a Storify of the confusion as it unfolded on Twitter.

CNN claimed in its retraction that it had three “credible sources on both local and federal levels” attesting to the arrest. AP similarly noted that it had an anonymous law enforcement source who stood by the claim even as the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office refuted it.

The Hollywood Reporter noted that NBC’s Pete Williams, who also refused to report the supposed arrest, was celebrated for taking a breath and waiting for an official source. Poynter’s Craig Silverman observed that the diversity of sources was just as important as their number.

Covering breaking news is understandably difficult work, especially in a crisis situation, but Silverman noted that owning up to mistakes is essential in keeping journalists accountable. Days after the bombing, The New York Post continued to claim that 12 were killed in the blasts, despite law enforcement agencies’ claims of three. The Post was widely criticized for suggesting that a Saudi victim of the attack was a suspect and for running a front-page photo identifying two men as “potential suspects,” according to the Huffington Post. 



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