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. But on the day the Pulitzer Prizes honoring excellence in journalism were announced – The Denver Post won the award for breaking news for its coverage of a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. that left 12 dead and 58 injured – news outlets were making major blunders while covering the Boston bombings.
Among the most egregious:
• The New York Post gave an inflated death count, saying there were “ at least 12 dead.” At the time, three people had been killed.
• The Wall Street Journal reported that police had discovered five additional explosive devices in addition to the two that been discovered, a statement that was later retracted.
• In what it called a “world-beating scoop,” the New York Post reported that a Saudi national was a suspect in the case when, in fact, he was a witness and a victim.
• 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.’”
King’s description of the so-called suspect sparked a lively discussion on the National Association of Black Journalists listserve.
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:
“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.”
The Boston Police Department scooped journalists when it announced April 19, via Twitter, that an arrest had been made in the case.
In view of the grievous errors made in covering high-profile crimes, news outlets should spend less time showing yellow police tape and more time explaining to the public that in an ongoing investigation, they will not get the facts before the next commercial break.
We should have learned this lesson already. 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, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.