CNN, The Boston Globe and other news media reported a Boston Marathon bombing suspect had been arrested when it was not true. They weren’t alone. While criticizing itself, CNN’s Reliable Sources pointed out mistakes by others (including social media civilians wildly rumor-mongering). But the media horde got most of it right while racing to report the unprecedented search for the bombers. If ever reporters were justified to go at breakneck speed and occasionally stumble, albeit badly, Boston was it. I’m not excusing mistakes that can sometimes end careers, but breaking away from the pack on the media racetrack almost always involves collisions.
When I was a journalist people often asked, “Why rush? Why the need for speed?” They’d say slower and more accurate is best. I’d say”He who most consistently breaks the big story first wins.” In part, it’s how we media types internally determine who’s best. But there’s more. I’d tell a story like this…
You’re driving home and encounter twisted cars flanked by ambulances and police vehicles with lights flashing, EMT’s laboring over victims, a sheet over a windshield, a child seat in the road, a TV crew scrambling. You absorb the scene as you creep by. You finally get home wondering what you’d seen. It looked bad.
You turn on channel 6 for news: your usual choice. Only entertainment. You try others. Nothing. Being a news junky you grab your smart phone to see if they’ve said anything on Twitter. No. Nothing on websites either.
Because local people were clearly hurt, or worse, you obsess about the accident. You cycle and recycle through social media, websites, and the television channels. Still nothing. Then… something.
Channel 10 Tweets about a serious wreck on Highway 157. In fact Channel 10, not your usual news source, Tweets frequently: multi-vehicle accident, fatalities, injured. Live shot in 5 minutes. The other news stations say nothing. You turn to Channel 10 for the live report. A news alert slide leads to a reporter. She tells you about the crash you saw. Finally, details.
Hungry for more you continue monitoring social media and TV. Eventually the other news stations catch up with Channel 10. But Channel 10 continues giving more information more often. You decide to stay with it. When your spouse comes home you rewind the DVR and show him Channel 10’s live reports. You both continue watching Channel 10 instead of Channel 6, your usual choice.
A not-so-subtle change has happened. You altered your news-viewing habits temporarily. You may return to Channel 6 but a seed is planted. You’ll remember that Channel 10 gave more information faster. You’ll wonder whether 10 is the better choice during a crisis. Maybe 10 is the better choice period. You kind of like their news anchors. Channel 10 news just won.
And THAT is a primary reason speed counts when news breaks. To be sure, public safety might
be a factor as in Boston. But the first with the biggest story most consistently can win the ratings, the promotions, the revenue, and the credibility.
April 23 New York Times news item: “Despite some critical reviews…CNN attracted one of its biggest audiences in a decade (for covering Boston)…”
As for mistakes, USC Annenberg assistant professor Mike Ananny counsels more silence by the media when lack of information justifies it, and offers, “…it takes a different kind of courage to be silent, to listen, to trust, and speak when the time is right.”