By Carolyn Linck
Like much of the country, my attention the past week has been captured by the senseless tragedy at the Boston Marathon and subsequent events. This past week our office struggled to focus on work while watching coverage of the terrible news on CNN and reaching out to our Boston colleagues to ensure they were OK. We monitored Twitter for the latest updates and occasionally someone would announce a headline they just read.
“Another bomb just went off at the JFK Library…”
“They’ve cut cell service to the city…”
“They’ve arrested a suspect!”
As the hours and days passed, however, it became clear that many of the reports we were reading and watching with such intense interest were incomplete, and at times patently inaccurate. Most notably, The Associated Press (AP) and CNN reported on Wednesday that a suspect was in custody, when in fact, no arrests had been made.
This is not the first time major news outlets have gotten stories wrong. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December numerous news agencies mistakenly identified the shooter as Ryan Lanza, when it was actually his brother, Adam, who committed the heinous crime. Similar to the Boston Marathon, there were multiple false reports around the Sandy Hook story when it first broke, including incorrect facts about the type of weapon used and details about Lanza’s and his mother’s connection to the school.
Other recent incidents include CNN and FOX News misreporting the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare and outlets such as CBS, The Huffington Post and MSNBC.com announcing that legendary and recently embattled Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, had died a day early. In January 2011, NPR and Reuters, among others, incorrectly published that Rep. Gabrielle Gifford of Arizona had died after being shot in the head.
While misreported stories are hardly new to journalism (who can forget the iconic image of President Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Tribune declaring Thomas Dewey winner of the 1948 election?), it seems the shortening of the news cycle, the rise of mobile news and social media have certainly contributed to its proliferation. As readers who are always connected to our mobile devices, we expect constant updates. Reporters often cover breaking news by live tweeting events as they are unfolding. While this can provide tremendous value, such as the tweets directing Bostonians to nearby blood donation centers, this also poses a serious problem because it leaves little to no time for fact-checking. Incorrect news now spreads much faster as stories are re-tweeted, links are shared and emails are sent around the world instantaneously. In the quest to be first, it appears that many outlets are willing to sacrifice being right.