Tip Off

Did the press report too many details about the Times Square car bomb?

Faisal Shahzad, the man suspected of parking an SUV packed with explosive material along a busy Times Square thoroughfare, was arrested just before a flight that would have taken him to Dubai was
set to push back from its gate.

A dramatic moment, one that was reportedly set into motion by Shahzad’s decision to flee the country as the press reported details of the investigation that would have made any suspect feel the long arm of the law coming closer.

Dina Temple-Raston of National Public Radio reported last week that law enforcement officials felt that media coverage of the ongoing investigation and manhunt in the hours between the bomb’s placement and the suspect’s apprehension hampered their work. Temple-Raston disclosed that she herself declined to report information, eventually reported elsewhere, that law enforcement was monitoring a Pakistani American from Shelton, Connecticut because she “knew it could cause problems for their

“Surveillance is only effective when you don’t know you’re being watched,” said Temple-Raston, who described herself as “shocked” at the other news organization’s decision to report that detail. (She says she was later told that Shahzad, upon hearing that specific report, realized the time had come to flee.)

NPR noted that the sources of this fact, and other sensitive information about the progress of the hunt, were, of course, law enforcement officials engaged in a bit of competitive showboating between the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Was Temple-Raston right to withhold a fact of public interest for the sake of the investigation? Were other outlets irresponsible to report certain information? In general, where is the line in reporting details that could spoil or impede an ongoing investigation? Does the responsibility for keeping such information quiet lie with the officials who know it, the journalists who come to know it, or some combination of the two?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.