On Monday afternoon, the New York Post published a dramatic report that was widely aggregated and shared by thousands: The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid claimed that 12 people were killed by explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and that a suspect -- a Saudi Arabian male -- was being questioned at a Boston hospital. At the time of the report, Boston Police officials were reporting a death toll of two (which has since been raised to three); the Post was the first to report that any suspects were in custody.
As the story began to circulate widely on Twitter -- with little corroboration from more-reputable news sources -- skepticism grew.
Next person to quote the NYPost as a reliable source has to donate $100 to the Red Cross.
â€” Caroline O'Donovan (@ceodonovan) April 15, 2013
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Everyone should err on the side of skepticism when the NY Post is the only one reporting information about alleged suspect. Wait for facts.
â€” The Sparrow Project (@sparrowmedia) April 15, 2013
But the Post refused to acknowledge any errors in reporting, even after a spokesperson for the Boston Police Department told Talking Points Memo that no suspects had been taken into custody. "Honestly, I don't know where they're getting their information from, but it didn't come from us," the spokesperson said.
While the Post has modified some of the language of its initial reporting, it has not made a formal acknowledgement or issued a correction. When the highly cited story was initially published, the headline read “12 dead, at least more 50 [sic] injured after 2 explosions rock Boston Marathon, suspect identified and being guarded in hospital.’ On Wednesday, the same link led to a story with the headline ‘Terror attack strikes Boston Marathon, more than 130 injured, person of interest ID’d.’
The updated story maintained that a “federal law enforcement source told The Post there are at least 12 dead” but included outdated information about additional explosive devices reportedly found in Boston. That story links to another report about the "Saudi national," identifying him as a “person of interest” in the headline and a “suspect” in the text. A separate story, published in the early-morning hours on Tuesday, says “official death toll was three, but a law enforcement source told The Post it could be as high as 12.” It continues to refer to the Saudi Arabian national as a “suspect.” The most recent story, published later in the day on Tuesday, says nothing of the 12 supposed deaths but mentions that “17 [victims] are in critical condition.”
The Post didn’t pull the Saudi national out of thin air: John Miller of CBS News, a former associate director at the FBI, reported that a man was taken into custody, and the Los Angeles Times updated its live blog with a report of a Saudi national being questioned, citing a federal law enforcement official, but it said that the person had not been identified as a suspect. That blog post was published five minutes before the Post’s story announcing the 12 deaths and a suspect being guarded.
On Tuesday, Miller held a live Q&A on Facebook, where he responded to a question about suspects: “[Law enforcement officials] have been questioning one individual since just after the blast who is NOT being described as a suspect but was very close to the bomb at the time of the blast and who police thought was acting suspiciously,” later adding, “He has been fully cooperative throughout.” The updated report prompted some to ask for an apology from the Post.
â€” Tony Karon (@TonyKaron) April 16, 2013
@bostonglobe somebody should let the NY Post know that the Saudi student is a witness, not a suspect.
â€” Dr. Jeffrey Matthews (@JBMatthews) April 16, 2013
Numerous requests for comment to the New York Post’s online editorial desk and individual reporters have not been returned. So far, the only comment appears to have come from an unidentified employee of the Post, in a private email conversation with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith.
A friend at the New York Post emails: “No, we won’t be discussing our world-beating scoop about the man being questioned.”
â€” Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) April 16, 2013