Breaking news addicts were glued to their screens last week as developments in the Boston bombings case flooded cable news and media Twitter feeds, but in many cases, it’s hard to argue that their attention was rewarded. A few outlets and reporters drew acclaim for their performance during the story — most notably, The Boston Globe, Boston’s TV news crews, and NBC’s Pete Williams. But as Farhad Manjoo argued on Slate last Friday, people who avoided the news firehose and read a few high-quality articles the next day were still probably better informed than those who tried to follow minute-by-minute developments on cable and Twitter.
Unsurprisingly, many initial reports on the bombings were incorrect, but some big media outlets took that inaccuracy to another level over the course of the week. Among the widely-noted lowlights were CNN mistakenly reporting that a suspect had been arrested and the New York Post both wrongly naming a Saudi national as a suspect and putting a picture of two innocent men on its cover under a headline suggesting they were implicated in the crime. But they were hardly the only ones—serious mistakes were made by numerous journalists and news outlets.
Why did much of the media perform so poorly? Breaking news events have always been difficult and confusing to cover; errors are frequently made. However, the near-infinite size of the news hole that media outlets are now expected to try to fill online, on cable, and in social media, even when little new or accurate information is available, exacerbates the challenge and creates perverse incentives. With weak reputational and commercial penalties for inaccuracy—CNN’s audience reportedly tripled from the slow-news period of the week before—reporters rushed to fill the void with whatever information was available, however dubious.
In the aftermath of the case, much attention has focused on “crowdsourced” investigations on sites like Reddit that spread bogus claims into the mainstream press, but that argument puts responsibility in the wrong place. When the media circulates unverified claims from such sources—like a mistaken report about the names of the suspects—it gives them additional credibility and spreads them to a wider audience. Acting as a conduit for unverified information is an act of journalistic irresponsibility.
A more sophisticated defense of reporting on questionable sources of information came from BuzzFeed’s John Herrman and Ben Smith, who suggested that the media’s role is now to “gather and contextualize information that the media didn’t uncover itself,” including claims spreading online and in social media from sources like Reddit. Unfortunately, the Internet’s supply of misinformation is essentially infinite. The repurposing of Reddit content seems innocent enough when it comes to otters holding hands, but even the most critical reporting on Reddit “investigations” risks fueling misinformation by exposing questionable claims to a wider audience. When those claims cross into elite news coverage, media outlets may feel it necessary to weigh in, but such coverage should be extremely careful to warn readers that the claims are unproven and to avoid any specifics that are likely to prove mistaken, like naming supposed suspects.
Finally, some observers minimized the significance of initial reporting errors by noting that they were rapidly corrected. Smith made that claim to me on Twitter after the first night of the bombing, and The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi expanded on it in an article with the Slate-style headline “Mistakes in news reporting happen, but do they matter?”
It’s true, of course, that the speed of electronic media allows for more rapid corrections, but that should not let media organizations off the hook. First, initial mistaken reports during a news event can create misperceptions that may linger for years. Second, people’s lives may be ruined in the process. (The parents of a young man who was mistakenly identified as the bombing suspect probably believe that the error mattered regardless of how fast it was corrected.) Finally, media corrections and rowbacks are still too often barely acknowledged and receive little attention. As Poynter’s Craig Silverman notes, a lack of exposure to subsequent corrections may be especially common among people who consume news from fewer sources or who do so more sporadically.
Until we right the balance between speed and accuracy, similar mistakes will be commonplace. That’s why it’s so important to improve the incentives for responsible reporting. It’s encouraging to see NBC’s Williams achieve temporary journalistic folk-hero status for his accurate but ahead-of-the-pack reporting; more praise is also needed for outlets like The New York Times who were cautious and judicious in what they reported.