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Describing a Suspect: A Few Tips for Mr. King

Dzhokhar (left) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (FBI.gov)
Dzhokhar (left) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (FBI.gov)

(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.

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"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.

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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."

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Beyond King's 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.

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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.

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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.  

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