[For more on the media's coverage of the Boston marathon bombing, check out our podcast]
You could have sprained your brain trying to follow what was happening Wednesday afternoon on cable news and the Internet. The timeline of events is well-documented, but the gist of it is this: Several news outlets, with CNN leading the charge, were reporting that an arrest had been made relating to the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
This episode has been portrayed as an embarrassment for CNN, and that’s accurate to a large degree. Anytime your website has such blatantly contradictory headlines, you’ve done something drastically wrong.
Even though John King and others were hedging much of their reporting by attributing the information to “sources” within law enforcement, somewhere along the line all caveats about the reliability of this information were buried. In the screenshot above, there’s almost no indication that reports of an arrest are not yet verified. Plus they’re just flat-out wrong. That’s a problem.
But it's exactly what we've been asking for.
Find out why after the jump...
We have become relentless consumers of information with insatiable appetites for immediate gratification. CNN is just the waiter bringing us what we ordered: more information to consume. If we took a break from mocking CNN and slowed down for a moment, maybe we would recognize Twitter and cable news for what it is: a chance to ride shotgun and live vicariously through reporters, for better or worse.
Watch this clip of Jon Stewart’s take on King’s reporting. Stewart is mostly on point, but doesn’t sufficiently skewer maybe the most surreal aspect of it all: John King is put on the air to literally read his emails and texts out loud off his cell phone as he is receiving them. How can anyone expect this to be accurate?
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Wednesday’s debacle wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago, not because journalism was more noble back then, but because journalists weren’t expected to report in real time. In 1998, John King gets a tip about an arrest from his sources, goes to verify that information, finds out it isn’t true, then goes on the Nightly News and says nothing about an arrest. In 1998, you would have read the paper in the morning, gone to work, then watched the news when you got home. You never would have heard anything about an arrest. Do you think everything Bob Woodward said about Watergate would have been accurate if his editor had made him tweet and blog every time he got a new lead?
It’s lamentable that so much of the media has prioritized immediacy over accuracy, but that horse is out of the barn and three counties over by now. CNN and others aren’t changing because by watching and commenting on endlessly on the media, we’ve proven that we want the producer shoving the reporter in front of the camera. We want John King reading his emails. If we didn’t want it, we wouldn’t watch. We’d still buy newspapers.
News outlets should always strive to be more accurate. There were many outlets on Wednesday -- led by Pete Williams at NBC News -- that showed a lot more restraint than CNN, Fox, and the AP, and they should be commended for that. But when consumers are expecting updated stories every two minutes, accuracy is going to be a casualty. No one is immune.
After the Newtown shootings, a well-respected journalist did some self-reflection after he, along with many other news organizations, erroneously reported that Ryan Lanza was the shooter (not his brother Adam). Asked why he went on the air with information that Ryan was the shooter, this reporter said that he had checked with “several state and federal law enforcement agencies” and complied with a “procedure which we have followed many times in the past with no problem.” In describing his role in a breaking news story, this reporter said, “We’re in the position of trying to get the name as quickly as possible ... [p]olice in Connecticut didn’t put his name out formally until yesterday.” When asked why the public needed to know the name of the shooter so quickly, he responded, “I think you can’t wait. People want to know who did this. That’s an obvious and logical question.”
The reporter? Pete Williams of NBC News.
There is no question that CNN needs to do better. A lot better. But their failures yesterday don’t prove that journalism is any more broken than it ever has been. They illustrate that a large segment of the news consuming public has made a choice: we want our news now. While that’s not necessarily a bad choice, we should be more honest with ourselves about the costs of it. Our expectation now is not just to have our cake and eat it, but to have it 5 minutes ago and eat a new flavor 10 minutes ago. Maybe our palates should be a little more discerning.
So before the next time you turn on your TV to a cable news channel so that you can get yourself angry, stop for a moment and look at it. You’ll see your reflection.
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