The media: So fast, and often so wrong

It's good to be first with a story, but it's more important to be right, and any news editor will tell you that.

But the tragic drama in Boston last week shows just how difficult it has become to maintain that standard in the era of instant news.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake was made when the New York Post selected a photo taken at the finish line of the Boston Marathon of two young men with Arabic features, one carrying a backpack and the other a gym bag.

The Post's headline said, "Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon."

The two young men, one only 17, were not suspects at all, and police were only asking if anyone knew them. Big difference.

The paper's editor was unapologetic, explaining his paper was simply reporting things as they happened, which is a dubious explanation and certainly not a valid excuse for smearing two innocent people.

The Post is notorious for recklessness and exaggeration, so it is wrong to judge the entire news industry by its worst practitioners.

But less egregious mistakes were common throughout the days of nearly constant coverage.

The Post first reported 12 dead at the blast site. Other media reported an unrelated electrical fire as another bomb blast. Some reported that bombs were found in other parts of Boston when they were not.

Veteran CNN reporter and Boston native John King reported Thursday afternoon that police had arrested two suspects when no one was under arrest.

The public has a right to wonder how so much of what the media reports in a hurry is wrong.

The first reason is the obvious: competitive pressure. Each media outlet is trying to hold its audience or take audience away from other media.

Most print newspapers go to home subscribers, people who are likely to have been customers and remain customers from day to day. They have a nightly deadline and time to collect and weigh the information they are receiving.

But the Web has changed all that, for newspapers and everyone else.

Today's electronic news consumers are surfing from channel to channel, from one website to another, looking for the freshest and most intriguing information.

While the public may be temporarily angry about a piece of misinformation, it doesn't seem to punish less reliable sources by refusing to watch them.

Despite our protestations to the contrary, we would rather have our news quick and hot than slow but accurate.

There is also the pressure to fill dead air for TV reporters and anchors and to make websites look fresh and updated, even when there is no fresh information to report.

The trickle of news available is never enough to fill the volume of air time or Web space available.

When that happens, TV anchors enter a loop that you will certainly recognize: Say what you know for sure, talk about everything that isn't known and then cut to some reporter in the field or a hired "expert."

Then it's back to the studio and the familiar words, "To recap, here's what we know..." And loop begins anew.

This puts obvious pressure on reporters and producers to find new bits and pieces of information to hold viewers and users before they move on to another network or website.

Errors also happen from having to quickly sort through such a flood of information and misinformation. In an unfolding crisis, even solid, well-connected sources can provide bad information.

CNN's King later said he had three reliable sources for the erroneous arrest information he reported Thursday afternoon. Having three independent sources is usually considered a fairly high standard for reliability.

But those three sources may have been independently relying on a single source who didn't know what he was talking about.

That one person tells three, who tell John King, who reports the wrong information, which is picked up by other hungry news sources.

Within minutes, a bit of gossip reaches millions of Americans labeled as fact.

At the Sun Journal, we had a short meeting late Friday morning to talk about what we were reporting on the Web and which sources we would rely upon for our Web reporting.

We will have another meeting next week to figure out how we can better present breaking news in situations like this.

The honest truth is that media and society are stumbling along the edge of this rapidly changing era of instant information.

From the stock market to sexual relations, from identify theft to Facebook, we are being forced to reconsider old verities and adapt to new realities.

Clearly, we are all struggling and making mistakes as we go.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Steve  Dosh's picture

The media: So fast, and often so wrong . ..

ed. 8:10 pm Sunday night
. . especially commercial media ( not you guys )
We often turn to outlets like NPR , NHK , and even BBC ( although they get it wrong a - lot - ) and hardly ever CNN , NBC , HNL , HNN , CBS , or ABC in times like this . In their zeal to get a scoop and garner more ads media does get it wrong a lot of times
It's better to have too much information than , let's say , North Korea
During this last massacre ( as you may or may not have noticed ) many of us utilized the LSJ ® ( AP ® ) , Reuters \ NYT and FBI.gov and then i , ( for one ) , s t ƒ u when i started getting confused ( pardon my ƒrench . btw - when the ƒrench swear do they say , " Pardon my English ? " )
" We will have another meeting next week to figure out how we can better present breaking news in situations like this. "
Don't worry about it too much
You LSJ ® - BDN ®  guys and girls did an excellent job
Pat yourselves on the backs for once
It's the old GIGO thing , after all
/s Steve

MARK GRAVEL's picture

A more fundamental question

A more fundamental question to ask is whether being first even matters readers or views.

As a consumer of media content, I only have a small amount of free time to read or view the news out of my busy day; therefore, I go to only a few sources for my news.

I would assert that it is not important to nearly 100% of media consumers who is first. It requires a considerable amount of effort from the consumer to track who reported what first – more time than I or most consumers can afford to waste.

In my opinion, the rush to deliver news first is nothing more than a contrived benchmark between media outlets themselves. It brings no value to the consumer.
In fact, the errors that result devalue the business in the eyes of the consumer.

Media outlets need to focus on the consumer, not a contrived benchmark that really means nothing to the consumer.

 's picture

NY Post

The NY Post is a Murdock property, and the accuracy of their reporting is consistent across all Murdock properties.

Donald Irish's picture

The news event was about the

The news event was about the same as every day events, 5 per cent news reporting and 95 per cent opinions of so-called "experts" in various fields. I checked about each half hour to determine if the suspects had either been identified or caught.

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