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Misinformation and Anxiety in Boston Terrorism Investigation

Misinformation rather than enlightenment has been the order of the day in the investigation of Monday’s terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon. The anxiety stemming from the attack and the stream of inaccurate news about it is further freighted, moreover, by the FBI’s confirmation that two letters addressed to top political officials -- President Obama and Senator Richard Wicker (R., MS) -- tested positive for ricin, a deadly poison. As noted below, a man identified as Kenneth Curtis of Tupelo, Mississippi, has reportedly been arrested in connection with the mailings.

Early this afternoon, massive confusion was generated when mainstream media outlets first reported that an arrest had been made in the bombing case, then retracted that claim. CNN, in particular, kept insisting there had been an arrest even after other press agencies denied it. When all was said and done, though, it appeared that no suspect had even been in police custody, much less been formally charged -- and that perhaps no suspect has even been identified yet.

This is a common phenomenon in the high profile investigations that follow terrorist attacks. The investigators actually working the case would rather there were no disclosures made about the status of the investigation. At this point, their work is best done in secret -- or, at least, as much secrecy as is possible. Otherwise, any conspirators who may not already have fled will be alerted that it’s time to skip town, destroy evidence, and intimidate witnesses. These investigative agencies actually work for the public, however, and the public has an extraordinarily high level of interest in the progress of the case. Thus the agencies have official press agents whose job it is to keep the public reasonably informed without compromising investigative leads and tactics -- not an easy job.

Then there is the most unruly and damaging dynamic in the equation: the media and its anonymous law-enforcement sources. It seems every media outlet is in a rabid competition to be first, rather than most accurate, with every breaking development. This combines toxically with the fact that sources who hide behind anonymity -- precisely because they are not supposed to be running off at the mouth -- have widely varying levels of knowledge about the actual goings-on in the case.

Couple this with the fact that most journalists and many agents are not well-versed in the esoterica of the justice system -- in which, for example, “arrest” is different from “custody”; a “suspect” is different from a “person of interest”; and “detention” is different from “apprehension” -- and you have the roadmap to error-ridden reporting. The problem is not that reporters and sources are intentionally misleading the public. It is that their information is both less reliable than they think it is and easily given to miscommunication. A potential witness’s voluntary submission to a law-enforcement interview could be mistaken for a suspect’s surrender to police custody. Solid leads on a potential bomber based on video and forensic evidence could be miscommunicated as a solid identification of a suspect. The issuance of an arrest warrant for a person not in custody could be miscommunicated as an actual arrest.

In most circumstances, this would not create torrents of misinformation. Reporters would corroborate new information through multiple, independent sources (rather than dependent sources who may just be echoing the same bad information). They would refrain from publishing until they were sure. But what is happening in Boston is not normal. It is a frenzy. And even worse than its effect of confusing and angering the public is the help it gives the terrorists. The leak-generated misinformation puts pressure on investigative agencies to correct the record; these public corrections give the terrorists insights into the state of the investigation that they would not otherwise have. It makes them harder to catch. It makes critical evidence harder to obtain.