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Boston: News organizations' race to be first leads to stumbles

April 18, 2013|By Joe Flint
  • Police officers react to the second of two explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Police officers react to the second of two explosions near the finish line… (John Tlumacki/Boston Globe )

Sports radio personality Dan Patrick often jokes that the motto of his news team is, "Fast and wrong is still fast."

Too often these days that slogan could be used to describe real news organizations. The latest example came Wednesday when false reports of an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing led the FBI to criticize the media.

Both print and television outlets, including CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press, reported the arrest. Multiple organizations then followed suit (including this one) attributing the story to one of the other news outlets. Then, everyone backtracked from that story when other sources disputed it. 

FULL COVERAGE: Boston Marathon explosions

The FBI said that since the bombing, "There have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate." The agency added that, "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.”

No one can question the earnest desire of journalists to advance a story. That desire combined with the urge to scoop their competition is what lands the big stories.

But it can also lead to taking unnecessary chances or rushing premature stories to print or air. What's happened in Boston is just the latest example. NPR mistakenly reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords died after being shot last year. After the Newtown shooting, several news organizations falsely reported that the gunman was Ryan Lanza when it was his brother Adam.

GRAPHIC: Explosions on Boston Marathon route

Crime is not the only type of story where speed can trump accuracy. When the Supreme Court's health care ruling was announced, CNN and Fox News got it wrong at first. In that situation, there was no excuse for not reading the decision before reporting on it.

Part of the problem is pressure. When one news organization reports something, others naturally want to confirm it or report someone else's story as fact so they are not left behind. As New York Times reporter Brian Stelter tweeted, "Imagine being in a TV control room when the boss calls: 'CNN and Fox say this. Why don't we have it??'"

These days no one really remembers who got something right first. People do remember who got it wrong first.


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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.


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