Boston lessons: Accept errors inherent in breaking news reports

2013-04-23T00:00:00Z Boston lessons: Accept errors inherent in breaking news reportsJohn Dickerson Slate Arizona Daily Star
April 23, 2013 12:00 am  • 

WASHINGTON

In the fast news moments after the Boston bombing, there was a lot of stupidity on Twitter. People were sending obviously Photoshopped pictures, linking to fake Twitter accounts and otherwise passing on bad dope - including provisional reports from media sources.

But when people got out of hand, the collective started to sanction those people. When photos started being posted of young anonymous men in the crowd, people sent around Richard Jewell's obituary to warn against early condemnation of suspects. Don't repeat what you hear on a scanner, many warned; it's almost certain to be wrong.

There's been a lot of discussion about where traditional media and new media failed in their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Good. We should call out the bad ones so that standards will be higher and celebrate the good so we'll all know where to tune in next time. But as we figure out who to listen to in the future, we should also think about a way to process these breaking news developments.

As a consumer in a breaking news environment when there are fewer filters and you're switching from Reddit to CNN to Twitter to the New York Times, you're becoming an editor and not a simple passive recipient. You're watching, listening and sharing news and stories because you want the latest as fast as possible. That's fine, but like an editor, you've got to know that if you're consistently asking for lightening fast news, you are going to get some bum information some of the time. You could disqualify the reporters who bring it to you or you could adopt a standard that fits the moment.

The standard that fits the breaking news moment is to treat everything as provisional and accept the error inherent in the speed that you're demanding. So when CNN, Fox, The Associated Press and the Boston Globe report that a suspect is in custody, that's interesting, but it's not news until they have a name and a picture. And even then, remember Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused in the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta.

If those news organizations get it wrong - as they all did in Boston - then the model for appraisal should be closer to the one we use for batters in baseball. The standards are pretty clear - we know what a ball and a strike is - but we also know how to view a strikeout in context. Those news organizations struck out on naming a suspect. Some news organizations, including ABC, NBC and CBS, laid off the wild pitch. There are limits to context. Someone who gets up to the plate and consistently throws the bat down the third base line is an obvious mess. I'm speaking, of course, about the New York Post.

If you are constantly looking for news updates, whether on Twitter, CNN or on the Web, that probably means that you want news organizations taking risks, being on a twitchy trigger. If that's true, then you should evaluate their mistakes in this context. Also, if you are thinking about this breaking news balancing act, you'll be less likely to go down blind allies, firing up emotions that aren't really justified.

When we condemn too fast, it is the flip side of another phenomenon: We are too credulous. Slowing down the condemnation recognizes the provisional nature of the news. That might make us less likely to pass along news that, after a moment of consideration, we'll recognize is soft and might turn out to be wrong. That might begin to walk us all back from the overemphasis on breaking news. Everyone is going to embrace your breathless report with skepticism, so don't rush it out there so fast in the first place.

It's too easy to say, "Oh, they got it wrong" and condemn a reporter or a news organization forever. That's not only unfair to the news organization that might otherwise have a pretty good batting average in the end (like the Globe), but more important, it lets you off the hook from your ongoing responsibility as skeptic and editor. There are different degrees of inaccuracy that matter in different ways at different times. Testing each piece of information on that standard is the lesson that should come out of the Boston bombing reporting.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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