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?

Boned: Here’s another reason why newspapers are losing readers…

Having just completed the 14 km City2Sea race on Sunday I was given a copy of The Sunday Age for my troubles.

Sweaty and tired and looking forward to a big breakfast, I turned to the front page of the newspaper which had as its headline: “End transimssion” with a granny photo of Channel 10 newsreader Helen Kapalos.

Expecting a big story about a financial crisis or collapse – indeed perhaps the end of the TV network’s own transmission – I read on and found that the story was about Kapalos losing her job as part of network cutbacks.

Reading like a suspense novel plot, the story describes how “within minutes of bidding viewers a good weekend and walking off set, Kapalos was grabbed on the arm by the personal assistant of Ten’s head of news, Dermot O’Brien, and instructed not to leave the office”.

After a tense stand-off, Kapalos was allowed to return to her computer to retrieve her holiday booking – it just so happened her sacking occurred on the day she was due to fly out for a holiday in the US.

Now I don’t wish to make light of anybody losing their job – having been “boned” myself in the past I know how it feels  – but I have to ask: was a newsreader losing her job the biggest and most important story of the weekend in Melbourne or Australia or anywhere for that matter?

Was it the biggest story of the weekend and did it warrant front page courage?

I bet Kapalos herself was surprised to find news of her boneing (for overseas readers, “boneing” is an Australian term referring to getting fired) her photo splashed across the front-page of Melbourne’s only Sunday broadsheet newspaper.

It’s the kind of story that should have warranted a side column somewhere in the middle of the newspaper, not the front page or third page or even the fifth page.

Apart from Kapalos herself (who will surely be fielding many job offers on her return from her overseas holiday), and some of her fans who enjoyed watching her read out the day’s news items in her rather sultry, whispery voice (I didn’t mind her interrupting my Thursday night viewing of Law & Order with a news update) this is not a story that warranted the front-page splash it received.

Yes I know Channel 10 is in trouble (and that’s the bigger story) but it’s the network’s own fault really –  have you watched some of the dreck they have come out with lately: Being Lara Bingle, The Shire, Everybody Dance now? All of them rubbish. All them failures. All of them axed!

As for the story of Kapalos’s dismissal this was a just another example of how the TV networks operate- indeed anyone who has enjoyed a television show on the commercial networks only to see it suddenly “boned” from the schedule will know they are a ruthless bunch.

You could also read into the “misplacement” of this story as a sign that’s its not just the internet that’s too blame for newspapers’ falling readerships and advertising woes.

Is The Sunday Age a learned, high-brow broadsheet or is it re-making itself into another tabloid? Or perhaps it is having an identity crisis?

Surely, there had to be a bigger story on Sunday then Kapalos getting boned?

First of all it was Remembrance Day, so that might have warranted a front page  – after all there are Australian soliders involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and risking their lives on a daily basis.

And there are many other local and national issues that would have deserved front-page priority.

Instead, The Sunday Age has gone for a front page story which (with the greatest respect) is what you’d expect on the front cover of the Herald Sun.

And I wouldn’t have a problem with it being on the front cover of the Herald Sun because those sorts of stories are its bread and butter- attention grabbing headlines about attractive news anchors being pulled aside after their last news broadcast and told to pack their bags.

The Sunday Age is a weighty newspaper and deserves weightier stories on its front page.

Is it any wonder its readership has fallen around 15% in the space of year!

Update to this story: As I predicted, Helen Kapalos is reportedly being courted by a host of TV networks since being boned by Channel 10, which only re-affirms what I wrote about this never being an important enough story to warrant the front page of a major newspaper.