I am a certified news junkie, but even I had to step away from the oversaturated media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Anyone who has covered crimes on a smaller scale than the twin explosions in Boston knows that investigators don’t have instant answers for everything and it’s ridiculous to think that in a frenzied atmosphere, accurate information will be available in abundance. But that did not prevent news outlets and social media from rushing to be first rather than calmly waiting to be accurate.
The result was a string of embarrassing mistakes that did little to comfort a nation on edge, a nation that still hadn’t gotten over the shock of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Of course, this is not to suggest that everything reported by the media was wrong. The news media helped disseminate photos of the two bombing suspect that eventually led to their being identified.
The media was able to pass along instructions for people to remain in their homes until the suspects were captured. And most of us learned what had happened in Boston by watching television, going to the Internet or social media.
At 1:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17, John King reported on CNN that a suspect had been taken into custody. That was false.
King also erred when he reported last Wednesday: “I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this is a dark-skinned male.”
PBS anchor Gwen Ifill tweeted, “disturbing that it’s OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect as a ‘dark skinned individual.’”
Askia Muhammad, a columnist and radio host, wrote, “How did they know that sand n—er was a suspect? He must have been wearing a towel on his head.”
Roger Witherspoon, a veteran journalist and public relations executive, said: “Well, now that the FBI has released photos of the two men who apparently carried the bombs, I’m puzzled. Perhaps there’s a problem with the contrast on my TV, but they don’t look dark skinned to me.”
The Associated Press, Fox News, and the Boston Globe also mistakenly reported that a suspect had been arrested in the case. The reporting was so inaccurate that the FBI issued a statement that said:
“Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”
‘Gather the facts’
In view of the grievous errors made in covering high-profile crimes, news outlets should spend less time showing yellow police tape, flashing police lights and hyping their own reporters and more time explaining to the public that in an ongoing investigation, they will not get the facts before the next commercial break.
As President Obama said, “In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes jumping to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right. That’s why we have investigations.
That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts.”
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.