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Commentary: Media’s Coverage of Bombing Making an Awful Story Worse

After a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombing, the torrent of news coverage often gives us a little extra reason to cringe. While it’s too early to know whether that terrible act of terror will be followed by a daily drumbeat of terrible journalism, there are reasons to worry. There also are some past examples of crimes against journalism that are well worth remembering.

In the days before we knew that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the work of homegrown terrorism, there was a drumbeat of speculation that Islamic radicals were the culprits. Newsroom pulses raced when a Jordanian national was detained, then released. Steven Emerson, a commentator for both CNN and CBS, took it further, speculating without evidence that the bombing “had Middle Eastern traits.” Wrong. In an era when Americans can be rash in judging the entire Islamic world, Emerson and others did a lot of harm.

The poster child for bad reporting in these stories isn’t a perpetrator, but a hero-turned-victim. Richard Jewell was a security guard working an outdoor celebration at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Jewell was a soft-spoken country boy who longed for a career in public safety. When nails and shrapnel from a bomb tore through the crowd that night, Jewell was already in hero mode, having moved some in that crowd away from a suspicious-looking backpack, most surely limiting the blast’s death toll to one.

He became the story’s prerequisite hero, then abruptly became its obligatory villain when media suspicion helped make him the prime suspect. By the time the furor died down, Jewell was formally cleared and relabeled a hero. He won cash settlements from lawsuits against two news organizations, but never lost the scars from his plunge into the news blender.

The lessons of the error-prone rush to judgment in Oklahoma City and Atlanta didn’t stop Brian Ross, a veteran network TV investigator, from smearing another group only a year ago. Ross went on ABC’s Good Morning America shortly after the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., speculating that the killer had ties to the tea party movement.

His evidence? An Internet search found an Aurora resident with the same name as the shooting suspect listed on a local tea party members’ list. In one intemperate remark that later drew a rebuke from his bosses and an apology from Ross, he defamed a group with no connection to a mass murder and validated the lack of trust that many Americans have for reporters — all in the name of scooping the competition.

This time around, Fox News was out of the gate early. Within hours of the Boston bombing, they rolled out Joe Arpaio, the cartoonish sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. Arpaio had little knowledge to offer, never having experienced terrorism firsthand, but he was happy to talk about himself, saying he, too, had received bomb threats — as if he were jealous of all the attention Boston was getting.

A day later, “terrorism expert” Erick Stakelbeck jumped both the gun and the shark on Fox, saying without evidence that the bombing “had the hallmark of an Islamic attack.” I looked up Stakelbeck’s bio, and while it did not suggest he had had any counterterrorism training, it did say he used to work for Steven Emerson. Should I jump to my own conclusions about that? Maybe so.

Though other news organizations now largely avoid Emerson, he showed up on Fox this week suggesting that the marathon bombing was organized international terrorism. Incredibly, he dismissed questions from Fox’s Megyn Kelly about possible domestic terrorists. Emerson conveniently forgot his Oklahoma City blunder and said home-grown terrorists “use guns to carry out their attacks.”

But Fox News isn’t the only one. C-SPAN also gave Emerson a platform.

After backing off its early reporting that the bombing killed 12 people, not three, the New York Post continued to wrongly point a finger at a Saudi man for the bombing. Their “suspect” was never a suspect, but was, in fact, a victim wounded in the attack.

From right-wing talk shows to NPR to left-wing blogs, I’ve heard the same questions: Was it a home-grown terrorist like Timothy McVeigh? Or was it al-Qaida? Did it happen because it was Patriots’ Day? IRS Day?

On Wednesday, CNN, Fox News and the usually reliable Associated Press all had to correct false reports that a suspect had been arrested.

I’m happy to wait to find out the answer to those questions. Let’s bury the dead, treat the wounded, console the families and wash the blood off Boylston Street while we let the experts investigate.

When we awoke yesterday morning, some of those answers emerged. The wall-to-wall live coverage helped expose two more flaws as reporters and anchors filled hours of time by speculating about the motives of the two suspects’ motives — especially their possibly-real, but possibly-imaginary links to political strife in faraway Chechnya. The second flaw is a more serious one.

A week earlier, our national angst about jobs, the sequester and North Korea ruled the roost. But since TV news bosses tend to be terrified of losing viewers should they leave the big story to acknowledge the rest of the world even for a minute, those stories vanish, apparently and suddenly unimportant for our lives and futures.

Journalists and self-styled pundits can better serve the public by helping us figure out how to stop the next one and avoid speculation until the cold, hard facts are in. And please, when something like this happens, let the demagogues take the week off. For once, let’s get this story right, rather than get it right away.

The last thing in the world news organizations should do is make an awful story worse.