The public remains "pretty understanding" of errors as long as a news outlet owns up to them, says Scott Maier, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon who has researched reporting mistakes. "The research shows that people who [are sources of] the news media know the media won't get it all right all the time. There's an expectation that when news is fast-breaking and unfolding that reporters won't always have it right."
Indeed, stories like the Boston Marathon bombings are often misreported. Erroneous news reports about new threats were rife in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. In 1996, some media reports falsely identified a security guard named Richard Jewell as a suspect in the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing. And similar false identifications followed the 1995 truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the 2011 shooting massacre in Oslo, Norway, and the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December.
People are less tolerant when mistakes aren't acknowledged or the on-air speculation veers into ethnic or racial stereotypes, as the discussion of "dark-skinned" or alleged Muslim suspects did this week, says Emily Bell, a journalism professor at Columbia University.
"You're inviting a very visceral reaction when you wander into that territory," she says. "The unintended consequence is that it cast instant suspicion on a lot of innocent people and adds very little" to the public understanding of the story.
Maier singled out the New York Post for publishing a photo of two men on its cover Thursday under the headline "Bag Men," implying that the men were suspects or accomplices when neither has been charged. The newspaper has yet to correct those accounts. "If you're mistaken, you need to examine what went wrong and why," he says. "I haven't seen that kind of acknowledgment. It's arrogant and it infuriates people."