Describing a Suspect: A Few Tips for Mr. King

Why his CNN report about a "dark-skinned male" was not only wrong, given current events, but also useless.

Dzhokhar (left) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (
Dzhokhar (left) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (

(The Root) — The federal authorities and Boston police put out the word early after the bombings at Monday’s Boston Marathon: Bring us your implausible, your unlikely, your huddled hunches yearning to be heard. Advance and be recognized.

“We are processing all the digital photographic evidence we can,” said Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asking the public “to continue submitting whatever they have to police.”

With that kind of thinking taking center stage in the investigation, federal and commonwealth officials implicitly expressed a preference for thoroughness over speed. That didn’t sit well with the electronic media — a fact that the media paid for this week. One most trusted outlet in particular.

We’re not that far removed from the era of the guys in the press (and back then they were all guys) salivating at the precinct desk or the courthouse door, grappling for something that would play up high in the bulldog edition. Fast-forward to the digital era, and we can see that not much has changed. The rugby-scrum aesthetic has ruled the day at press conferences related to the bombings. The howling mob with microphones still wanted its answers yesterday.

And one journalist made a dizzying leap of logic. On Wednesday afternoon, CNN reporter John King obeyed his journalist’s Pavlovian reflex when he reported — erroneously — on a “breakthrough” in the case, that the authorities had focused on a potential suspect in the marathon bombings.

“I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things,” he said. “I was told by one of these sources, who is a law-enforcement official, that this was a dark-skinned male.”

That was it. That was all he offered. Moments later, King doubled down on dumb, inexplicably saying that he’d been given a sharper, more distinctive description, but he’d keep that to himself. “There are some people who will take offense for even saying that,” he said. “I understand that.”

“I’m making a personal judgment — forgive me, I think it’s the right judgment — not to try to inflame tensions,” King said. “They say it’s a dark-skinned male. I’m gonna stop there.”

It’s anyone’s guess as to how long King may have been dozing in the lecture hall at the journalism school he attended at the University of Rhode Island. He apparently missed the class in Journalism 101 — the one in which would-be reporters were told that if the description you have for a suspect is too broad to be specific to a particular individual, if the description you have is generally applicable to hundreds or thousands of people, it’s worthless to the public.

King’s suspect description of a “dark-skinned male” was one such bad example. In a breathless, misguided attempt to break significant news, one of CNN’s top dogs did nothing more than give the already nervous people of Boston a pretext for considering every dark-skinned male they encountered in the days to come to be a suspect in Monday’s violence. To go by King’s broad description, the man who won the marathon was a suspect himself.

When the actual pictures of the actual suspects, later identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, surfaced Thursday afternoon — images of two people who couldn’t look more unlike “dark-skinned males” if they tried — it made King’s Wednesday statements that much more indefensible.