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.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.