By Nicole Hemmer
Just after 3pm last Monday, local time, the New York Times Twitter feed announced breaking news: the paper had just won four Pulitzer Prizes for excellence in journalism. The next tweet, sent out thirteen minutes later, relayed reports of two explosions at the Boston marathon.
The news coverage that followed made excellence in journalism seem well out-of-reach. While the early reporting out of Boston showed restraint as journalists took care not to speculate, much of the media soon traded caution for conjecture. In doing so, they not only abdicated their duty to inform the public, but they hindered the country's ability to respond to one of the worst weeks in memory.
When Tuesday morning dawned with no new leads or suspects, news media began to fill in the blanks. A 20-year-old Saudi national injured in the bombing was questioned by police after the attacks. The New York Post immediately labelled the victim a "suspect," though police never considered him one. Reporters swarmed his family and friends. A Fox News producer hounded the student's roommate until the roommate finally hid his face, begging, "Let me go to school, dude."
The media's desire to name the guilty party caught other innocents as well. On Thursday morning the New York Post — racking up an impressive string of errors over the week — ran a front-page photograph of two spectators labelled "BAG MEN". The accompanying story suggested the men were prime suspects. But they were nothing of the sort. The Post's "Bag Men" were a seventeen-year-old Moroccan-American track athlete and his coach, there to watch the race.
To be sure, mistaken reporting is nothing new. "Dewey Defeats Truman!" declared the Chicago Tribune front page the day after the closely-contested 1948 presidential election between Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman. The Tribune got it spectacularly wrong, its error immortalised in a photograph of Truman holding the paper aloft for reporters as he declared victory.
So being wrong is nothing new. But errors in reporting have been compounded by the new media imperatives of the digital age. The 24/7 news cycle leads to unbroken coverage of shocking events, even when hours pass with no new developments. Add in the every-man-a-reporter climate of social media like Twitter and Reddit, and coverage of stories like Boston becomes a free-for-all.
This fast-paced news favours being first over being right. Boston was only the latest example of this trend. In 2012 when the US Supreme Court handed down its controversial ruling on health care reform, Fox News and CNN were first to report the decision. Only they got it wrong. Having skimmed rather than analysed the ruling, they concluded the Court had struck down rather than upheld President Obama's signature legislation. As a result, wholly unnecessary chaos and misinformation greeted the decision.
In the wake of the Boston bombings, the effects of sloppy reporting were even more damaging. Rather than informing and clarifying, the media added to the confusion and uncertainty following the attacks. Rather than intervening in rumour and assumption, they amplified both.
The speculation and misreporting got so bad that the FBI was forced to comment. On Thursday CNN announced a suspect had been arrested, leading nearly a thousand reporters to descend on the Boston courthouse. Over the course of an hour the network's reporting unravelled. In response to CNN's misinformation, the FBI issued a stern statement warning the press it was hindering law enforcement's efforts to find the terrorists.
The Boston bombing suspects are now either dead or in custody. But the US still faces a staggering number of problems: the renewed threat of terrorism, a lacklustre economy, a gridlocked political system. With so many problems, what the nation needs most is a press that can cut through partisanship, confusion, and spectacle, a press that strengthens rather than stymies America's ability to meet its challenges.
In the days following the Boston attacks, the American media showed themselves unfit for that task. If there is anything redeemable about the week just past, it is the hope that the media's appalling failures spur a rejection of reckless reportage and a recommitment to genuine excellence in journalism.
This article was originally published at The Australian