Sources Backtrack on Whether Tamerlan's Friend Had Knife

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
May 23 2013 1:58 PM

Those Unnamed Sources Are No Longer So Sure Tamerlan's Friend Pulled a Knife

Todashev.Ibragim.photo
Ibragim Todashev seen here in a booking photo from May 2013 after he had been arrested for aggrevated battery in an unrelated case

Photo courtesy of the Orange County Corrections Department

The AtlanticWire's Alexander Abad-Santos has a really nice rundown of all the conflicting information coming out of Orlando, where an FBI agent shot and killed one of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's friends yesterday morning during an interview that may or may not have included the man's confession to an unsolved triple homicide from 2011. Go read the full thing, but I just wanted to highlight one nugget from it because of how well it illustrates just how unreliable loosely sourced reports can be in the immediate aftermath of something like this.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Here's the key part from the Associated Press story on Ibragim Todashev death (emphasis mine):

Three law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initially that Todashev had lunged at the FBI agent with a knife. However, two of those officials said later in the day it was no longer clear what had happened. The third official had not received any new information.
Advertisement

The knife detail was also reported by NBC News and ABC News; the New York Times had it as "a knife or a pipe or something." Given the nature of the reporting we obviously can't tell if everyone's listening to the same unidentified "law enforcement officials," but the changing account offered to the AP illustrates a pair of related lessons that are worth remembering for anyone consuming news: 1) unnamed sources, even when they're speaking honestly, don't necessarily have correct information; and 2) unless the source was actually in the room, his or her information is at best coming secondhand, and more likely third- or fourth-hand.

So remember that when NBC News, for instance, writes a lede like this:

Dead Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and another man — who was killed by the FBI on Wednesday — murdered three people in Massachusetts after a drug deal went wrong in 2011, law enforcement sources tell NBC News.

It may be technically accurate—three sources may have told the network that—but it nonetheless overstates the reality of the situation. At best, those law enforcement sources now believe that Tsarnaev and his friend committed the murders, but even if that's the case it doesn't necessarily mean that the FBI at large does—or that they can now prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I'm not saying that reporters should never use unnamed police sources to color in the details of the very vague official picture. (If nothing else, it's good to have the FBI on record—or least as close to on-the-record as possible—for when the story inevitably changes later). I am saying that we—myself, included—should all do a better job of making it painfully clear when we're dealing with allegations instead of facts.

I realize I'm not breaking new ground here, but the point probably can't be said enough, especially when so many people consume their news in 140-or-less-character bites. Anyway, go read the AW piece, which also gets into the question of whether Todashev really was about to sign a confession as was alleged yesterday by Mr. Unnamed Law Enforcement Official.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter, and read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.***

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.