Sometimes, when dramatic events unfold over the course of several days, it becomes difficult for news organizations, be they newspapers, television networks or websites, to keep up. Things are simply happening too fast.
But that is preferable to news organizations getting ahead of the story by reporting only hearsay, as happened during the Boston Marathon bombing episode. According to National Public Radio, the worst of the many false reports presented as news found the New York Post incorrectly fingering two people as bombing suspects who had nothing to do with it. There were numerous other examples.
This is what happens when the race to be first with breaking news causes media outlets to pay too close attention to what is being said on the blogosphere by those who have no real stake in what, exactly, is fact and what is fiction. It isn’t that bloggers are trying to get it wrong. It’s just that it doesn’t matter as much to them if they do get it wrong.
Like the rest of America, our family was glued to coverage of events as they unfolded Saturday a couple of weeks ago in Boston. For one thing, we had a deeper connection than many outside the Boston area. On Friday night our son, who lives there, had walked through the area at MIT where the university police officer was killed an hour before he was shot. That same night as he tried to sleep, he could hear bombs exploding as the suspects attempted to elude police. The suspects lived about a mile from his apartment in Cambridge.
He had flown home from Boston only minutes before officials shut the town down as they scrambled to find the remaining suspect.
As we watched events unfolding in the comfort of our home in Ada, he advised us to quit watching television network news. Instead, he encouraged us to read about it on his laptop computer as a Boston blogger repeated what he was hearing officers say on a police radio.
And sure enough, it was exciting — and fast moving. That’s the upside. The downside is police aren’t always providing the straight scoop as things transpire in real time. Obviously, they aren’t trying to deceive anyone. Anyone dodging whizzing bullets and cacophonous bombs can be forgiven for not getting everything right down to the last detail. Most of us couldn’t get a boring sequence of events factually correct, let alone one that could potentially be life threatening.
Everyone makes mistakes, and certainly journalists are no exception. It happens. But the rule is always to get two sources if the information provided is not part of an official record and therefore verified.
Hard-bitten editors put it this way to their reporters: “If your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source!”
The New York Post and all other media outlets that jumped to flimsy Boston bombing conclusions should remind themselves of this timeless standard.