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Early Bombing Arrest Reports Burn News Outlets

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Boston Marathon bombing coverage gave critics more ammunition against the media, as if any is really all that necessary. But why do some mistakes keep happening?

CNN, FoxNews.com and The Boston Globe found themselves backpedaling from reports that police arrested a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing this week.

Those initial reports, in many cases attributed to anonymous sources within the law enforcement community, gave the public fodder for those tired “the media is broken” arguments. Again.

Yeah, we get it. What I don’t get about these media critics is this: if they have all the answers, why are they wasting their time writing about what the media gets wrong after the fact when they could be bringing all their constantly-touted knowhow to coverage before and during a breaking news situation? You’d think they’d do quite well in that kind of job, wouldn’t you?

There’s always the complaint about the “race to be first.” People who wave this little flag around seem to do so with a kind of self-satisfaction that might be expected of someone who’s just discovered the cure for cancer. Sure, each media outlet you can find want to be the first outlet to break a big story, no matter how much it may claim it puts a higher priority on being accurate at all times. Just like every other business you can name wants its own corner of the market on being first to deliver what its customers want. That, friends, is common sense.

When you work in a field, unfortunately, that relies on the goal of reporting truth, the desire to be first is not your friend.

Here’s the thing about breaking news: it’s not an exact science.

There are certainly ways to prevent unconfirmed reports — the kind of reports that often tend to be erroneous — from getting on the air. You simply wait until some official walks up to a microphone and makes a statement. But then you’re guilty of not “digging deeper” and not asking your own questions beyond what “they” are telling you: let’s face it, for everyone who distrusts the media, there’s at least one person who distrusts anyone who’s an “official,” too. Any media outlet who waits to be “spoon-fed” information is equally guilty of not doing its job correctly as one that reports rumors as fact without any attempts to qualify them as rumor.

When President Kennedy was assassinated, early reports poured into newsrooms that he had died, long before the official announcement hit the wires. Two priests who’d been called in to administer the Last Rites told reporters Kennedy was dead. A Secret Service agent was reportedly heard to have said he was dead. Medical personnel told reporters on the scene he was dead. These reports made the air with the parenthetical note that they were unconfirmed.

I don’t recall a report I heard about an arrest in Boston that didn’t say the same thing. An unconfirmed report carries with it an automatic level of doubt. If the story’s important enough, unconfirmed reports enter the coverage; someone will always report something he believes to be true before some official source decides to go on record to confirm it’s true. When a law enforcement source who wishes to remain anonymous because he isn’t in a position or lacks the authority to make an official confirmation tells a reporter that something has already happened, it’s difficult to keep that out of the coverage, because law enforcement officers and agents have, by nature of their rank, a level of credibility that an average man on the street doesn’t.

How many times have we seen an incident’s immediate aftermath from which we formed our understanding of what must have happened, then heard a completely different set of circumstances turn out to be the cause of what we saw? If you think about it, it happens all the time.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to defend erroneous reporting here. What I’m saying is this: News changes as our understanding does.

What appears to be true at one moment can be exposed as spectacularly false in another. There was a time, before you were born, when people of authority believed that the world was flat and that if you sailed too far away, you’d literally fall off of it. That was the understanding, and well-regarded, well-trusted people convinced others of this “fact” because it was what they genuinely believed to be true at that time. They were the reliable sources of that time.

Until someone sailed off and kept going…and didn’t fall off the edge.

I doubt seriously whether “unconfirmed reports” will ever disappear from breaking news coverage. I’m not even 100% convinced they should.

I am convinced, however, that everyone needs to do his part in breaking news situations: the media need to make abundantly clear that an unconfirmed report is an unconfirmed report; news consumers need to pay attention to those notes and understand that the situation might just change before we get all of the answers.

It almost always does.

Early Bombing Arrest Reports Burn News Outlets
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