Conflicting Reports on Alleged Boston Suspect Flood Social Media

BY Colleen Shalby  April 17, 2013 at 7:39 PM EDT

The Boston Police Department sent this tweet after a flurry of conflicting reports from several media organizations.

Editor’s note: PBS NewsHour subscribes to the Associated Press wire, which we rely on for national and international reporting. NewsHour tweeted AP’s initial alert reporting an “imminent arrest” regarding the Boston Marathon bombing, but when it seemed that there was some confusion we refrained from further updates.

In the span of about an hour on Wednesday, reports clashed regarding whether an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombing.

It’s unclear why such confusion erupted. But perhaps the biggest issue was a lack of credible sourcing, as news organizations reporting on an arrest sourced each other or unnamed sources. A misunderstanding over “custody” verses “arrest” could also be the culprit of the confusion, as Al Tompkins from the journalism institute Poynter tweeted. At publish time, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston are denying that a suspect is in custody.

The online community began speculating about a possible suspect in the bombing Wednesday morning when the Atlantic Wire pointed to security footage that had been posted on the Reddit sub-forum “Find Boston Bombers”.

By the afternoon, a flurry of arrest reports started hitting Twitter. At 1:42 p.m. ET, AP reported via tweet: “Arrest imminent.” Ten minutes later the Boston Globe tweeted that an arrest had been made. A few moments after that, CNN chimed in with news that law enforcement sources were confirming an arrest.

NBC, followed by CBS, NPR and Reuters countered with reports that no arrest had yet been made. Within the hour AP, CNN and the Boston Globe began to retract their original reports. The confusion finally ended at 2:33 p.m. ET when the Boston Police Department, the ultimate source in this case, reported that no suspect had yet been arrested.

View the Storify timeline below on the conflicting breaking news reports.