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 (

How Not to Describe a Suspect

It’s not enough for King to lay the blame for this mess on the tip he got from one of the law-enforcement officials in the case. Tips like this should be filtered through at least two thresholds, answering two basic questions, before they’re made public:

Is the tip credible? Did it come from a credible source? On this point, King stands on reasonably solid ground; he reported that his tip came from “one of these sources, who is a law-enforcement official.” Given the sharp coordination of federal and commonwealth authorities that was evident from the beginning, a law-enforcement source was — and is — as credible as a reporter could ask for. Since King didn’t say, we don’t know if his source was Police Commissioner Ed Davis or a cop on the beat. Let’s concede that it was likely someone high enough in the Boston Police Department food chain to really give his or her tip some gravitas.

Then, though, there’s the second question, the one that King didn’t ask himself: Is the tip actionable — meaning, is the tip valuable in its ability to focus public awareness of the defining characteristics of a possible suspect? Is this hot tip granular enough to do the public and law enforcement any good?

And it’s not a matter of deferring to the authorities on matters of how actionable the tip might be. A catch-all description like “dark-skinned male” serves no purpose other than to arouse suspicion, instill fear in an already-fearful population — and, by the way, give the real suspects that much more confidence in moving freely after the violence they unleashed on the people of Boston. You don’t have to be a law-enforcement official to understand that.

Beyond Kings Blunder

Others got similarly caught up in the “suspect in custody” frenzy. The Associated Press used basically those words in one of its reports. Fox News said it was “confirmed” that a suspect had been arrested. And throughout the evolution of this tragedy, way too much was made about its literal description — about who used the word “terrorism” to describe what had happened. The media tried to lead from behind on that one but failed, basically waiting until the White House used the word in a statement to fully embrace it as a description of what was obviously an act of terrorism from the moment it happened.

But somehow it all crystallized in the epic fail of CNN, which was roundly excoriated in the days that followed. The Boston Marathon bombing was the maiden breaking-news event for the new CNN, as reconfigured by Jeff Zucker, who took over as network chief in January. Everyone was watching them on this one. We’ll leave that celebrated rock song contrasting “new” and “old” alone, for now. What’s been painfully true these last few days for CNN has been just as true mediawide.

From the start of the Boston tragedy, the law-enforcement officials indicated that, from their perspective, doing it right would trump doing it fast. The media flagships need to get their collective head around that way of thinking.

Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root and the author of American Bandwidth, on the 2008 Obama campaign and the first days of his presidency.