Naming Rolf Harris and Sunil Tripathi: mainstream media’s troubled relationship with social media

Last weekend, The Saturday Age splashed this Facebook photo of Sunil Tripathi (below) a missing university student incorrectly identified by bloggers as a possible suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings across its front cover.

The story has been removed from The Age website, but can be read here in its online archives.


The photo of a smiling Tripathi was splashed on the front page of The Saturday Age below a now notorious grainy photo of the two suspects at the marathon just before the bombs went off:


The caption below Tripathi’s photo read: “Sunil Tripathi was reported missing by his family. He is pictured in a Facebook page set up to find the Brown University student. Sunil is reported to have been named on a police scanner as one of the suspects.”

At the very top of the same page, above the masthead, was another headline in large font and in bold:

Rolf Harris linked to UK sex abuse inquiry

The Australian entertainer’s arrest over sex crime allegations was a poorly guarded secret since November last year, with his name revealed by many bloggers.

The story that mentioned Sunil Tripathi, written by respected journalist Paul McGeough, a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald now based in Washington D.C., detailed the events leading up to the capture and death of one of the suspects, while the other was still at large at the time.

McGeough wrote: “Police did not confirm the names being ascribed to the two men in the blogosphere – Suspect One as Mike Mulugeta and Suspect Two as Sunil Tripathi.” – contradicting what was said in the photo caption.

Tripathi had been named as a suspect on blogging aggregator news website, Reddit, after users said they thought they recognised him as the suspect wearing a white baseball cap.

That man turned out to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now an alleged Chechen terrorist, who along with brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed in a police gun fight after the bombing, are believed to be the sole perpetrators of the attack.

Sunil Tripahti and “Mike Mulugeta” (even less has been reported of him) had nothing to do with the Boston bombings.

Tragically, the body of Sunil Tripathi, missing since last month, was found in the Providence River on Friday (April 20), much to the anguish of his grief-stricken family.

A day after the Saturday Age story appeared, the following day’s Sunday Age ran with the correct story about the Tsarnaev brothers as the Boston bombers.

There was no mention at all of the misidentification of Sunil Tripathi.

At first I thought I’d mis-read the Saturday Age story, but pulling out the paper from the recycling bin, proved that I wasn’t going crazy.

So I emailed The Age‘s editor Andrew Holden to ask him if he could clear up the confusion.

I received a response from Steve Foley, The Age‘s news director, who confirmed that the newspaper did publish the two names (Tripathi and Mulugeta) “that were circulating on Friday evening (Saturday morning Australian time) in our first edition”.

“As we went to press the story was still unfolding at rapid speed. The updated story for our second edition of the Saturday paper did not mention them. By then it was being reported that two Chechens were the Boston bombing suspects,” said Foley

“On Saturday morning, by which time our coverage was all online, we acknowledged our error – stating that we had published incorrect information on Friday night.

“We aim to get it right, every time, and despite all precautions, lapses do occur,” he added.

As I mentioned earlier, the Fairfax print archives only references the first, erroneous story about Tripathi being a suspect.

Online, there is no mention of  Tripathi being incorrectly identified by the newspaper.

However, The Age and other Fairfax websites have since published two follow-up stories about Tripathi: one under the headline “Student wrongly named as Boston bomber found dead” and another is about Reddit apologising for the grief it caused the Tripathi family for naming their son as a suspect” “Reddit apologises for Boston online witch hunts”.

(This is the official Reddit apology)

Incredibly, neither of these stories acknowledge the fact that The Saturday Age, which has a readership of 227,000, splashed Tripathi’s name and photo across its front page in error, nor has an apology been issued either publicly or privately to the family of Sunil Tripathi for suggesting their son might be a terrorist.

Is this just arrogance on the part of Fairfax or does the media giant really believe it’s entirely the fault of Reddit users for suggesting Tripathi may have been Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

I should point out that Fairfax was not the only mainstream media organisation to get this wrong.

According to The Australian‘s media writer Nick Leys, both Channel Nine and Channel Seven named Tripathi in their 6pm news bulletins, relying on the “blogosphere” as a reliable source.

“Journalists here and in the US threw the rule books out the window on Friday night choosing to use social media as a reliable source…journalists were blindly repeating those names with no reliable source….” wrote Leys in his Media Diary wrap last week.

This of course brings me back to the other heading on the front page of that ill-fated Saturday Age edition.

The story about Rolf Harris.

Why is that The Saturday Age found it acceptable to print Sunil Tripathi’s name and photograph based on entirely unverified accusations almost the moment they became known but waited six months to print Rolf Harris’s name, when it had been splashed across countless blogs?

Steve Foley did not respond to my questions about this issue so all I  can do is speculate.

Was it to give Rolf Harris the benefit of the doubt because he’s one of Australia’s most famous and much-loved entertainers? Was it because they feared a costly and embarrassing lawsuit if the arrest proved untrue?

Possibly both explanation are true.

So why wasn’t a young US student afforded the same duty of care?

And why has The Age not deemed it necessary to apologise to his family?

5 thoughts on “Naming Rolf Harris and Sunil Tripathi: mainstream media’s troubled relationship with social media

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