Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reckless reporting: CNN, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the relentless rush to be first

By Michael J.W. Stickings

So were you following what was happening today -- not just in real life, but in the media's (atrocious) reporting of real life? Whether you were on Twitter or surfing through the 24/7 cable news channels, or whatever, it was impossible to miss. There were were all manner of rumors flying around, and all manner of speculative reporting masquerading as "breaking news," but basically, the thing to know is that CNN got it pretty much entirely wrong, reporting that an arrest had been made when, of course, there was no arrest at all. (John King was the one who got it wrong on TV. On its website, the now-changed headline was "Authorities arrest suspect in Boston bombings, source says.")

This is not to say that CNN should take the fall for what is a much broader problem in the media (the rabid quest to be first, for example, to "win," which leads to what happened today). It's just that today of all days, with so much attention on the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack, and with everyone desperately searching for clues and even more so for answers, for some sort of resolution, if not also for justice, for some explanation, for the who, what, and why, for the responsible, yes, with all that, it was CNN blew it. As I tweeted:

And it was TPM that did us all a great service with this mash-up of CNN's reckless irresponsibility:

Look, I don't want to go too hard on this. You're a reporter, or an editor, or whatever, you hear things, you have to make what seems like a split-second decision, and, well, mistakes are often made. A lot of the time, news outlets do admirable work and get it right, and it's rather unfair for any one outlet to be brought down by a single mistake, or even for its various mistakes to define it entirely.

But this was bad. And unnecessary. And, alas, not so much the rare exception -- not just at CNN but everywhere in the media -- but yet another example of what's wrong with the media. (Fox News and that sort of hyper-partisan media outlet are a separate problem. I'm talking about news reporting here, about getting the story out, not spinning it for political purposes.)

CNN pulled back, as it had to, and is now, like others, taking things more slowly, cautiously:

Investigators have pinpointed two men as "possible suspects" who were seen in images near the finish line of this week's Boston Marathon -- moments before twin bombs there exploded, killing three and injuring about 180 others -- a law enforcement official said.

A circular sent out Wednesday to federal and state agencies features the photos "in an attempt to identify the individuals," who were described as being of "high interest" to investigators.

Okay, that's all we know. For now.

We rely on the media, including CNN, to tell us what's going on, but what we don't need, particularly at a time of mass confusion following a major tragedy, is for them to lead us into ever deeper levels of uncertainty in their rush to be first.

We all want to know more, but let's make sure what we know, and what we are told, is right.

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