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New York Post May Face Suit Over Boston 'Bag Men' Cover

As the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings continued this week, with charges brought against former classmates of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, there was an indication that media coverage of the event -- tied to the unique, crowd-sourced nature of the investigation of the bombing suspects -- might lead to some legal fallout as well.

Erik Wemple's blog at The Washington Post reports that the father of one of the two young men who appeared on the cover of the April 18 issue of the New York Post is considering suing the newspaper over the false implication that his son was involved in the bombing. The New York Post published a photo of 17-year-old Salah Barhoum and another man, with the headline "BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." Barhoum, who had no connection to the bombings, had gone to the police the day before to clear his name after seeing photos of himself circulating online. He told ABC News at the time that his reaction to seeing the New York Post cover was "the worst feeling that I can possibly feel … I'm only 17."

Salah Barhoum's father, El Houssein Barhoum, said this week that he is seeking legal counsel. "A lot of people, they tell me that's your right to sue them," he told the Eric Wemple Blog. Barhoum described the impact the incident has had on his family's life, saying that both he and his son have had trouble sleeping, and that Salah sometimes refuses to go to school.

"We were just scared to go outside" when the pictures were published, the father said. "My future is based on my kids. ... If something happens to them, it happens to me, too."

The Eric Wemple Blog had already discussed a potential lawsuit against the New York Post over the cover in an interesting analysis last week, strongly supporting the idea of the men in the photo seeking "millions or even billions of dollars in damages from the paper." Wemple spoke to attorney L. Lin Wood, who represented Richard Jewell in his libel cases against numerous news organizations -- including the New York Post -- over reports implicating him in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombings. "Based on what I see here, I would think this is definitely a case of defamation by implication," Lin said of the potential suit over the "Bag Men" cover.

Wemple writes that an apology or a retraction from a publication accused of defamation can sometimes reduce damages in a lawsuit. It doesn't seem as though Barhoum is going to get one from the New York Post. Although widely criticized for using the photo of the two men, the Post stood by the cover, saying it "did not identify them as suspects." The paper published a story stating that the men had been cleared, but did not apologize for the cover. "They should apologize on the newspaper," Barhoum said. "They should write something on the newspaper, not between us. If they make a bad image of your son, they should make a good image just to correct."

In contrast, the social media site Reddit, which played a starring role in much of the online crowd-sourcing of information and speculation about the bombings, issued an apology in a blog post for what it called "online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties." The apology specifically addressed the family of Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who was widely misidentified as a suspect on Reddit and other sites. (Tripathi was missing at the time of the bombings; his body was found on April 23 near Providence, R.I., according to his family)

If the Barhoum family does pursue a suit against the New York Post, it might not be the only legal action stemming from the media frenzy that occurred during the week of the bombings, during which many online would-be investigators -- and some major news outlets -- got so much of the story so wrong.

Posted by Laurel Newby on May 2, 2013 at 04:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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