Boston Bombings Demonstrate Journalistic Failings

It seems that the media’s penchant for reporting first and investigating later isn’t limited only to Israel and the Middle East. The appalling Boston Marathon terror attack and the subsequent manhunt unsurprisingly dominated the recent news. But how many rumors and untruths appeared on TV and in the newspapers before the real details emerged?

Calling for fundamental changes in journalistic practice, Brendan Nyhan writes in the Columbia Journalism Review:

Unsurprisingly, many initial reports on the bombings were incorrect, but some big media outlets took that inaccuracy to another level over the course of the week. Among the widely-noted lowlights were CNN mistakenly reporting that a suspect had been arrested and the New York Post both wrongly naming a Saudi national as a suspect and putting a picture of two innocent men on its cover under a headline suggesting they were implicated in the crime. But they were hardly the only onesserious mistakes were made by numerous journalists and news outlets.

Why did much of the media perform so poorly? Breaking news events have always been difficult and confusing to cover; errors are frequently made. However, the near-infinite size of the news hole that media outlets are now expected to try to fill online, on cable, and in social media, even when little new or accurate information is available, exacerbates the challenge and creates perverse incentives. With weak reputational and commercial penalties for inaccuracy—CNN’s audience reportedly tripled from the slow-news period of the week before—reporters rushed to fill the void with whatever information was available, however dubious.

Nyhan also addresses the issue of reporting from unsourced social media, stating that “Acting as a conduit for unverified information is an act of journalistic irresponsibility.”

How many times over the years have we seen libels against Israel in the press which are later proven false? Indeed, Nyhan says that “initial mistaken reports during a news event can create misperceptions that may may linger for years.” Incidents such as the so-called “Jenin Massacre” instantly spring to mind.

Nyhan also points out that “media corrections and rowbacks are still too often barely acknowledged and receive little attention.”

That’s why it’s so important that we not only strive to get those corrections but to also publicize them and ensure that the media is held accountable for their mistakes.

Finally, Nyhan asks  if the is “any chance we can create an anti-Pulitzer for worst breaking news coverage?” Perhaps, at least when it comes to coverage of Israel, HonestReporting’s very own Dishonest Reporter Award might just be the closest thing.

Read the full article in the CJR here.