For a time, Gabrielle Giffords was dead. So was Newtown, Connecticut, shooter Adam Lanza’s father. Or maybe it was his brother in Hoboken, New Jersey. All three, as we now know, are alive. Two of them weren’t even shot. On the other hand, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber is, actually, under arrest. Then he wasn’t. Then he was.
How does the news get it so wrong?
I’ve spent almost 20 years as a reporter and anchor and have covered more live, fast-breaking stories than I remember. Mistakes happen regularly on cable news because of the inexact and unreliable nature of rolling coverage. But most of the mistakes don’t matter: the exact color of the car, the exact price of the stock, the exact quote from the courtroom. Ultimately, they all get corrected, as rumor and speculation give way to provable fact and hard evidence. Most of the mistakes end up being of little consequence. But the details surrounding the Boston bomber mattered, because the nation was so heavily invested. Americans were on edge, their sense of safety shattered again. Public anxiety was at its height when the news of an arrest first came.
The news, it turns out, was wrong. And this one didn’t fix itself. Mistakes like this happen most frequently when reporters, who take pride in doing their own work, can’t determine the facts alone. Reporters are at their best when they, or their teams, gather news directly from sources. That means interviews, discoveries made from poring over documents, or video that captures the facts. But in unfolding tragedies like post-bombing Boston, being no closer to the action than the general public, reporters depend on information flow from behind official lines.
The problem starts when officials keep tight lipped, officially, but leak a little around the edges. A cop tells an old reporter friend something on the side. Or a cop tells a retired cop who has a friend. Or someone sees a squad car racing to a station with lights and sirens. A game of clandestine phone calls and broken telephone starts where an unrelated suspect halfway across town being put into a police car gets connected to the story you’re covering. Badly-sourced news never starts out as totally wrong information. There’s often something to it, but once it’s in the hands of a reporter, it can take on a life of its own. A life that can change the future of the reporter handling it. There’s information staring you in the face. Could be right. Could be wrong. Could be the biggest scoop anyone covering this story has. And, for a precious few minutes—maybe just a few seconds—it’s yours and yours alone.
That’s where “sources,” people in the know with whom a reporter has established a relationship of trust, become crucial. Live coverage demands endless talk that can become repetitive and create a speculation-friendly environment. When reporters need details to pass on to a hungry audience, we turn to people who may, through their station or influence or contacts, have real information.
But in the heat of the moment, it’s hard as a reporter to know why someone just gave you the information you got, even if you asked for it. We’re used to being stonewalled even when we know we have good information. Your compass for truth and honesty is set off by all the noise around you, including on social media. Helpful as it is to get tips and scoops and check information, Twitter is merciless in punishing you when you’re lagging your competition, and ruthless if your information is imperfect.
Processes exist at all major news organizations to prevent reporting errors but, in live, fast-moving situations—fed by hysteria and fueled by thousands of tweets-per-second—sober thought and quiet examination of the veracity of one’s sources can take second place to getting the news out fast. This is particularly the case if the information has more than a passing chance of being accurate. It is especially likely if others are reporting similar stories (even if the source of the reporting is YOUR reporting). It’s not good, but it happens. Thankfully, it happens very rarely.
But when it happens, it’s big, and it’s crushing. Attacks were swift and cutting—and personal—on social media, from media critics and on the comedy shows. If major mistakes happened so rarely, that’s the defense you’d have heard. But they happen with alarming frequency. The “Crowd,” in front of their televisions and on their smartphones, is making us move faster, demanding updates and developments. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. Can’t we?
Having just left CNN after 12 years, I was disconnected from a newsroom environment for the first time in my career while the bombing and its aftermath unfolded. Like many others, I followed the post-marathon bombing developments on TV, on news sites, on blogs and on Twitter. Being a news consumer, rather than a provider, proved more difficult than I expected. I struggled to make sense of endless bits of disconnected and, ultimately, often untrue information. Asked if he shared my concern that big news mistakes had become worse, MSNBC anchor Richard Lui postulated that, given the increases in both the quantity and appetite for live breaking news coverage, the number and impact of mistakes still feels small.
Accuracy is always supposed to trump speed in reporting, but it’s hard to be the last to report a major development. It’s hard in this hyper-competitive market to even be second. Regularly being first wins you awards and accolades and audiences. But being wrong is, at best, a hard kick in the gut. At its worst, it can cost a journalist his or her career and an organization its credibility. Whether or not you tweet at us about it, we journalists actually do understand that being right is all that should matter. That’s never clearer than right after we’ve made a big mistake.
Follow Ali on Twitter at @alivelshi. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.