I felt like my brain was about to explode watching the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing last week. I was enthralled with the story, but the reporting and coverage of it just hurt.
It wasn’t just the misinformation spread by more than one news organization and journalist. It was how trained journalists pursued the story. Did everyone forget Journalism 101 while covering the story?
It also makes me wonder if we as journalists have learned anything because I feel like I’ve been repeating the points I’m about to make for quite some time, including after the Newtown shooting.
To tweet or not to tweet the scanner
Never have I seen so many people listening to (and tweeting) the scanner for a police operation.
I’m a big fan of the police scanner. If I’m covering something at the scene, the scanner helps me understand what I’m seeing better. But I also have been around enough cops and firefighters to understand the lingo and the codes you’re going to hear on the scanner.
I also know that it’s the heat of the moment and there are going to be things on the scanner that are exaggerations. Some things also are flat out wrong. It’s why you don’t report from the scanner from an active scene and confirm things.
We have a service in New Jersey called the BNN where people send messages of what they’re hearing on the BNN. I cannot count on two hands the number of alerts have turned out to be exaggerations or flat out nothing.
Should you live tweet the scanner? Of course not. A million times no! Especially if you are not at the scene and cannot see what is happening. I always thought of the scanner as something that gives me leads and supplements what I see with my own eyes. But we need to remember that it’s investigation in process, which means things discussed could turn out to be false.
Misinformation travels at a million miles per hour
Tweeting from the scanner means that misinformation was out there, including the names of suspects who were not really suspects at all. It’s all over Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and everywhere in between. That share and retweet button is pretty easy to use, but it doesn’t take long to think before you hit it.
Ask yourself who this person is who is posting information and how much you trust them. Are they sourcing their information? Because there was lots of information without clear sources throughout the week.
The Atlantic has an excellent article about the anatomy of one of these misinformation disasters from the week.
If your mother says she loves you…
Too often I saw posts on Twitter attributed to Reddit or as crowdsourced. That’s fine. I’m a big fan of Reddit and of crowdsourcing and both have helped me as a journalist and as a social media producer.
But what happened to confirming those sources? They’re not official police sources. They’re just random people and we don’t know their background. In some cases we don’t even know who the people are because of the anonymity of the Internet.
If I had a photo from someone that says it’s of a suspect, I’d want to confirm with an actual investigator or official. I’d want someone I trust to tell me it’s true. It seems some sources were not doing that, and that just helped create more misinformation and some news organizations to be just wrong.
So we’re wrong, now what
Of course people are going to be wrong at some point. Even Woodward and Bernstein were wrong at least once. I’ve been wrong. There can be miscommunication between us and our sources. Our sources just have the wrong information or it changes between when we talk to them and the story is published. It happens, though the severity of it the last week was at a pretty bad level.
How journalists react to being wrong, to me, is important. Do we say “our bad” or do we “stand by our story”? I think it says more to admit you were wrong than to defend your stories and reporting when you know it was bad. We’re human and make mistakes. Own up to them and it will earn you more credit with the public.
That doesn’t mean anyone should make a habit of being wrong. Just own up to your mistakes.
Will we ever learn?
It seems after big news stories like the Marathon bombing, we’re dissecting what went wrong and how we can do better. But then lots of people fall into the same habits and we repeat mistakes.
I had an editor at The Hour who once told us that the public trust is like virginity. Once you lose it, you can never get it back.
If we keep making the same mistakes, we’re going to lose the public’s trust. What are we as journalists and as an industry if we don’t have the public’s trust?
- Crowdsourced manhunt shows promise, problems (usatoday.com)
- Breaking News Is Broken (slate.com)
- When Following Breaking News, Why it Helps to Think Like a Journalist (pbs.org)