With a devastating explosion Wednesday night in West, Texas, killing at least 15 people and injuring at least 160, the media now has a chance to exercise the restraint it has failed to show in coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.
In addition to the rumor-mongering in the wake of Monday’s chaos, CNN and the Associated Press on Wednesday reported that investigators had identified a suspect and/or had made an arrest. The reports were wrong, prompting the FBI to make this appeal: “Contrary to widespread reporting, there have been no arrests made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. … Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”
That’s reporting 101, But too often “verifying information” gets lost in the race to report something first in our 24/7 “breaking news” cycle, and demand for “instant everything,” including an arrest in this case. But running with rumors not only can hurt the investigation, it tarnishes all media.
In another breach of ethics, the New York Daily News admitted that it digitally altered a front-page photograph of a marathon bombing victim so that the woman’s pants covered her horrific leg wounds, according to verified news reports.
More journalism 101. No manipulating of images. No sanitizing the truth. If a photo is deemed too gory to be printed, it’s not printed. (In fairness to the actual journalists at the Daily News, sources said the decision “came from the top” and that “photographers and editors are so embarrassed and saddened by this.”)
Imediaethics.org also reported these errors from Monday:
The AP reported that all cellphone service was been shut down in the Boston area to prevent any potential remote detonations of explosives. An hour later, it reported that was not the case.
The New York Post reported that 12 people were dead and claimed “law enforcement sources” said that there’s “a suspect — a Saudi Arabian national” who is 20 years old “under guard at an undisclosed Boston hospital.” Despite authorities repeatedly saying there weren’t any suspects in custody.
Investigations take time. In law enforcement and journalism, “just the facts” is the rule. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen this week, too many “news organizations” operate in the opposite fashion: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a “scoop.” News organizations need to police themselves if credibility and trust mean anything to them. It’s supposed to be the job of editors, not the FBI, to remind journalists to “exercise caution.” Come on, Fourth Estate, do better.