Mistakes, False News, and Errors: 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings

Resultant of the pressures placed on news organizations brought about by conglomeration and the “24/7” news era, is the modern trend of “report now, apologize later.” This trend of faulty journalism is not only a disservice to the public but violates the Society of Professional Journalism (SPJ) Code of Ethics. As consumers we should be active participants in our media culture and expect and demand a higher standard of news reporting. To discuss this trend, journalist and consumer responsibilities I will examine the news reporting practices of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing as detailed in the New York Times article, “The F.B.I Criticizes the News Media After Several Mistaken Reports of an Arrest.”

“Report now, apologize later”

Following the faulty reporting of the Boston marathon bombings by several major news organizations, the FBI issued a statement:

…Since these stories [inaccurate press reports] 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 (FBI Boston 2013).

This example of negligence by news agencies is one of many that have resulted in the modern trend of “report now, apologize later.” Judy Muller, a former network news correspondent, calls it The Age of Retraction-where the “rush” to be the first to report takes precedence over accuracy (Carter 2013). This “rush” to be the first to report undermines the ethical responsibilities of news agencies.

Journalist Ethical Responsibilities

The news organizations who rapidly spread false reports that an arrest had been made in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing, clearly violated the SPJ’s Code of Ethics. One principle in particular that was violated is “Seek the Truth and Report It.” Its tenant “verify information before releasing it,” was not observed by John King, a CNN correspondent who falsely reported on the identification of a suspect. He claimed he was told by a law enforcement official that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male” (Carter 2013). This was also a violation of the tenant “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

Though CNN initially violated the SPJ Code they adhered the tenant, “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.”  About an hour after the false identity report, CNN’s law enforcement expert and former assistant director of the F.B.I acknowledged that there had been no arrest and cited three sources who had given CNN the false information (Carter 2013). The Associated Press, however, violated this tenant by not acknowledging they had reported mis-information (Carter 2013).

Journalist economic pressures

The economic pressures news organizations endure today are rooted in its early beginning of the Penny Press of the 1800’s. New York Sun, founder Benjamin Day, sold his paper inexpensively to attract a large readership, or increase “ratings,” that could then be sold to advertisers for profit (Baran 2015). Despite early newspapers motivation to attract advertisers, verification news reporting by traditional media was a standard (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2010).  The 1990’s brought about conglomeration- “the increase of ownership of media outlets by larger, non-media companies” (Baran 2015, p.34), disrupting the standard.

The results of conglomeration were major decreases in news reporting staff, and increased competition amongst news organizations for ratings and profits. The lack of reporting staff led to the recycling of information from other news sources, less the attempts to verify (Bauder 2011). In the article, Media Outlets Apologize After Falsely Reporting Giffords’ Death, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather speaks on the prevailing pressures:

Most news sites, whether they be on the Internet, television, radio or print, have been hollowed out to the point where they are news packagers and not news gatherers…The pressure is immediate and almost crushing on you and your news organization to match that…Mostly what you hear are sets all over the world going to your competition and computers, handheld or otherwise, going to a different site.

In the advent of the Information Age, the pressures on news organizations are increased. Before 24/7 television, news was not reported all day and reporters had time to research. They were also trying to prove that television news could compete with print (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2010). The internet has added another level of pressure. Not only are news organizations competing for air time viewership, they are also competing for online screen time and clicks. In addition, news organizations must not only interpret the evidence they gather but also the evidence from citizen witnesses who are often the first to break news on social media cites (News 2014).

Journalist pressures from consumers

Do news organizations also feel the pressure from the public who desire immediate knowledge?  Do they feel pressure from those who are demanding “to know, what cannot be known, so that they are not mislead or led astray by panic” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2010 p.102)? Personally, I cannot say that I am one of those that desire immediate knowledge from the news- especially if it is not accurate. Even in the case of an urgent unfolding event, such as the Boston marathon bombings, I would prefer the news just say “we do not know,” or that “this is all information we have at this time,” Instead of reporting unverified information just to fill air-time or keep consumers tuned in. I am of the opinion that many consumers share my sentiments, particularly those who may have direct connections with an urgent breaking story. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2010) also point out, most consumers understand that when it comes to breaking news, journalist may have limited access, things may be chaotic and the details uncertain.

Expectations and responsibilities of consumers

Regardless of the pressures news organizations endure, that they allow to cause them to “report now, apologize later,” we as consumers should expect more evidence verification before news is reported. Social Responsibility Theory calls for the public’s “right to expect high standards and performance” of the media (Baran 2015 p. 366). Kovach and Rosenstiel (2010, p.118) suggest specific expectations:

…there be enough evidence to reasonably prove a case, expect to see the proof for ourselves, expect the unanswered or unclear elements be acknowledged and coverage of a subject to continue to keep us informed of what impact if any it’s disclosure has had

The responsibility to adhere to a higher standard should not solely be observed by news organizations. We as consumer should also hold ourselves to a higher standard by becoming active participants in our media culture. First, by critically evaluating evidence provided by news organizations and not taking everything we read or see at face value. Second, as advocated by Media Literacy Project, we can use a variety of media tools and technologies to express our expectations and demands. Some of the ways we can use media tools and technologies are by posting on news cite comments sections, blogging, writing letters to news organizations or voicing our expectations and demands on social media platforms.

Conclusion

The New York Times article, “The F.B.I Criticizes the News Media After Several Mistaken Reports of an Arrest,” illustrates the modern trend, “report now, apologize later,” by news organizations. This trend violates the SPJ’s Code of Ethics and does a disservice to the public. Though the pressures news organizations are burdened with are tremendous, they are not an excuse for careless journalism. The blame for this trend can only be placed on those news organizations and staff who observe it. Thus, it is the responsibility of news organizations to adhere to a higher standard of reporting. And it is our responsibility, as consumers, to actively participate in our media culture as critical evaluators and users of media tools and technologies to express our expectations and concerns.

References

Baran, S. J. (2015). Introduction to mass communication: Media literacy and culture (8th

ed.).Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Bauder, D. (2011, January 10) Media Outlets Apologize After Falsely Reporting Giffords’ Death.

Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved from

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/10/media-outlets-apologize-a_n_806603.html

Carter, B. (2013, April 17) The F.B.I. criticizes the news media after several mistaken reports of

an Arrest. Nytimes.com. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/business/media/fbi-criticizes-false-reports-of-a-bombing-arrest.html?_r=1

Introduction to Media Literacy (n.d) Medialiteracyproject.com Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20150330215302/http://medialiteracyproject.org/sites/default/files/resources/Intro_to_Media_Literacy.pdf

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2010). Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of

information overload. New York: Bloomsbury

Federal Bureau of Investigation Boston (2013, April 7) No Arrest in Bombing Investigation.

Fbi.gov. Retrieved from

https://www.fbi.gov/boston/press-releases/2013/no-arrest-made-in-bombing-investigation

 

Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics (2014, September 6). Society of Professional

Journalist. Retrieved from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

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