The more pressure there is for info, the more likely the mistakes
Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013
Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 18:08
If you’re like me, two weeks ago you were plastered to your television, trying your hardest to figure out and make sense of what exactly had happened at the Boston Marathon. In the days after the tragedy that confusion didn’t subside, but that’s not because the situation remained unclear but because the media failed America in its coverage of the Boston bombings.
The failures in the 24-hour news media’s mad scramble for information two weeks ago are somewhat excusable in the disorientation prevalent after a massive explosion ripples through a crowd and then a city, but those excuses ran out around the time the smoke cleared. Instead, a combination of factors including ten minutes of information spread across an hour, negligence in pursuing other stories and even hungry Redditors looking to stake a claim led to the worst possible result for the news media: they’re no longer trusted for news.
Outside of the New York Post, who made two inexcusable moves in declaring 12 people dead in the immediate aftermath and all but libeling two track-running teenagers on their front page two days later while never apologizing, the lion’s share of ridicule came from CNN. Some of their perceived errors were lesser so, like the immediately famous reporter waving her hand vigorously in front of the camera, that’s a known way for CNN correspondents to get the attention of the control room. However, CNN did indeed make a healthy amount of other errors. There was the April 17 debacle where exhausted and incredibly confused correspondents announced an arrest of at least one “dark-skinned male” suspect, only to retract it an hour later, not before every major TV news outlet outside of NBC repeated their “scoop;” on April 19, a small legion of reporters across Boston and Watertown continually made faux pas with little knowledge of ongoing events, the major highlight being when Susan Candiotti described the empty streets of Boston, forcibly shut down, as “like a bomb went off.”
Ratings drive stories in the modern news climate, in which CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and HLN all compete to come out on top every night. That said, the events late on April 17 by all networks were inexcusable. As reports began to trickle out of West, Texas of a massive fertilizer factory explosion, one source claiming as many as 70 fatalities and a four-block section of the town decimated, none of the news networks even mentioned the disaster, at least initially. An hour after news broke, Fox and MSNBC were still broadcasting late-market repeats of “The O’Reilly Factor” and “All In With Chris Hayes” while HLN stuck to their hour-long entertainment news report. Only CNN devoted any attention to the explosion, actually cutting away from Waco after a few minutes to report on supposed “developments” in the Marathon case. The time spent from news breaking to any actual coverage was entirely too long, possibly because of the cost of cutting away from already-sold ads, perhaps because only a skeleton crew was working the newsroom late. Likely, it’s because they had already spread their teams too thin; CNN’s Texas coverage was based out of Boston, where at least four, likely many more of their correspondents already were.
What really highlighted the absurdity and unprofessionalism of Boston coverage was the introduction of Reddit and other social media into the hunt. Reddit, of course, is a massive website with millions of users, each of its subpages outside of its initial shell devoted to a different topic. Its users are all ages and all nationalities; the problem occurred when its users attempted to assist the FBI in their search. The problem with tens of thousands of amateurs helping out thousands of trained professionals should be evident and only led to incorrect information broadcasted on all sides of the story
Sure, Redditors were able to discredit the Post’s libelous cover in mere minutes; less great were connections made between the bombings and missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi. Sure, at face value it seemed almost too good to be true; Tripathi had disappeared a month before the bombing with no leads to his location and was of foreign descent, meaning there was the slightest possibility of his involvement. The too-good-to-be-true story was decidedly that; after the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and manhunt of his brother Dzhokhar, it became clear Tripathi was innocent, making the discovery of his body on April 23 even worse for his family and loved ones. Incredibly, some news organizations including CNN shifted some of the blame for their incorrect coverage onto the website, while the FBI openly stated to the Washington Post that further release of information related to the bombings was to discount Redditors’ incorrect claims. Reddit is a valuable tool for journalists, but it has the same misgivings as any other website to one; there’s no way to prove or discredit its evidence, at least immediately. Sourcing Reddit is akin to sourcing some guy on the street; unless you know he’s right there on the scene by being on the scene yourself, it’s nigh impossible to prove he’s correct.
The question that comes out of the ludicrous amounts of turmoil from Boston, then, isn’t about the past but about the future. Is journalism, especially television journalism, broken? Not necessarily. Live news is a difficult beast. On the wrong day, wrangling a story can be worse than trapping a tiger. One key aspect of the solution has already come at some places, for instance CNN’s newly-instated checks-and-balances system. On the other side lies the journalists themselves. One person’s failing, though it may seem that way, does not imply all-around failure. Over time, we will learn from the mistakes made in Boston, but journalists will know them the most. For every Anderson Cooper or Edward R. Murrow, there’s a Jayson Blair; however, that statement can easily be reversed.