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Boston Bombings: News Outlets Wrong? Or Just ‘Ahead of Themselves’?

Welcome to news hell

Welcome to news hell: This story may be out of date by the time you finish it.

The news outlets that reported an arrest today in the Boston marathon bombings may be flat-out wrong — or may be, as one source told CNN, “ahead of themselves.” It’s a case of news evolving incredibly fast, and reporters struggling to keep up.

If there is really any new information at all.

Also read: Boston Bombings: Conflicting Reports Emerge on Arrest of Suspect

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston told several news outlets this afternoon that no arrest had been made after the Boston Globe, Fox News and CNN all reported an arrest, citing law enforcement sources. All the outlets later updated their initial reports with the official denials.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, said a suspect was in custody and an arrest was imminent. Later in the afternoon, CBS, CNN and other oulets said investigators were seeking a “possible suspect” seen on video near the bombing sites.

The FBI statement denied an arrest, but did so without explicitly denying anyone was in custody. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately return calls from TheWrap on Wednesday.

“Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack,” said the FBI’s statement. “Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

The confusion Wednesday created a kind of news hell in which reporters struggled to nail down exactly what was happening amid constantly shifting information.

A Boston law enforcement source told CNN, “We got him,” but wouldn’t clarify whether that meant a suspect had been arrested, detained, or merely identified. A federal law enforcement source told CNN, meanwhile, that “anyone who says ‘arrest’ is ahead of themselves.”

The AP report might lead readers to the conclusion that someone was indeed in custody, and simply had not been charged yet. Police often take suspects in for questioning without immediately arresting them. That may have been the case Wednesday. Or not.

It was also possible that no one was in custody, or even being questioned. Or that someone was in custody and would not be charged at all, and that this was another case of news outlets going too far.

But Wednesday was far from a case of reporters racing to point the finger at a particular person, as many outlets were accused of doing to Richard Jewell, who was linked to the 1996 Olympic Park bombing and later cleared. No suspect was identified by name Wednesday.

The conflicting reports Wednesday may have been a matter of sources — or news organizations — simply taking too big a leap. Or sources getting it wrong. Or reporters getting it wrong.

But here’s the ugly truth of reporting: Errors can easily result, in the midst of highly competitive, breaking stories, when both reporters and their sources strive for accuracy. Reporters are often told by one source, for example, that someone is alive and by others that the same person is dead — perhaps because the person has been taken off life support.

So even matters of life and death aren’t black and white.