While they search for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, police and authorities in Boston asked members of the news media to not cover or publicize police scanner reports as a safety measure:
#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.
— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 19, 2013
“It is really common for journalists and other people to listen to police scanners as sources of information,” Poynter’s Kelly McBride said by phone. “What a seasoned journalist will tell you, [is] it is very dicey to report” what you hear on a scanner as fact, she said.
Will Oremus writes about how a report from one fell victim to a self-perpetuating cycle of shoddy reporting:
In this case, the false information that Twitter was getting from the scanner was actually false information that the police on the scanner had gotten from Twitter, closing the false-information feedback loop. And, in fact, the false suspect names also surfaced on the Internet, including Reddit, before they were heard on the scanner.
Further, McBride explained why it’s risky to use scanners as part of reliable reporting.
“You are literally hearing snippets of conversation, and it’s out of context. It’s almost impossible in a short amount of time to figure out what the entire context is,” she said. “You’re also likely to hear warnings or alerts that can easily be misunderstood.”
McBride said that scanners can be used as tools for better reporting; they can give important geographical information, and can also be used in preparing questions for interviews.”Most responsible journalists don’t report as fact what they hear on the scanner,” she said.
After news organizations erroneously reported Wednesday that an arrest had been made in the case, the FBI released a statement that advised journalists to “exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”