Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Everything all the time fails us again

You just had to know it couldn't last.

After a relatively responsible performance by the national "mainstream" media in the first 48 hours following the Boston Marathon bombings, it all came quickly unraveled on Wednesday when CNN, followed by a half-dozen other major outlets, breathlessly (John King was quite literally gasping for breath) announced that an arrest had been made. This, he said, had been confirmed by two sources.

Both of which, it turns out, were wrong. Within minutes, CNN, Fox, the Boston Globe -- even the generally steady and cautious Associated Press -- had to backtrack their reports of an arrest. In their rush to get it first, they forgot Rule No. 1: Get it right.

What is one to say? Journalists aren't perfect? Despite the best intentions, mistakes happen? Oops?

Here's a better approach -- stop patronizing media organizations that place a higher priority on anything other than accuracy. Stop believing everything you see on Facebook or Twitter (and, for heaven's sake, stop forwarding it down the line). But we don't do that. We are addicted to everything, all the time. It's not a trivial matter. It's serious.

King is not a sloppy journalist. He began his career with the Associated Press, where he won the wire service's top award for his work covering the war in Kuwait. I had the great pleasure of spending some time with King at CNN's headquarters one evening some years ago, and he came across as serious and thoughtful.

And yet, the pressure of being first got the best of him. While others followed King down the wrong fork in the road, some did not, including NBC, which was the first outlet to report that, in fact, no arrest had been made. That's not just luck -- somewhere, someone inside NBC decided that it didn't have sufficient confirmation of an arrest, even while nearly all its competitors were saying it had happened.

That's journalism.

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