What We Can Learn From CNN’s Erroneous Reporting on Coast Guard Drill

CNN unnerved the nation Friday morning with live reports of Coast Guard teams firing on a suspect vessel on the Potomac River that would not stop when ordered. We know now it was just radio chatter, part of a “routine and low-level” Coast Guard exercise. And to top it all off, it came on the morning of the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

At one point, CNN reported on the air that a reporter had seen a boat challenge Coast Guard vessels and refuse to stop. We now know that did not happen. CNN reported that it contacted the Coast Guard “repeatedly” before it went live and that Coast Guard officials told them they had no idea what they were talking about when asked about “shots fired.” CNN repeatedly used video (supplied by WJLA-TV) of Coast Guard boats speeding around, which gave the illusion that there was an emergency of some sort. (All of this is on CNN’s video of the reporting.)

The concern escalated when the FAA heard CNN’s reports and put a ground halt on planes at nearby Reagan International Airport. Washington, D.C., police said they didn’t know what was going on and neither did the Pentagon. The Coast Guard has said no one was notified because the exercise was so routine, so low level.

Others picked up on CNN’s reporting, according to the Associated Press:

“After the Reuters news agency reported on what CNN was saying, Fox News followed suit, telling viewers: ‘Here is what we are learning. The U.S. Coast Guard ship of some type fired on what is considered a suspicious boat in the Potomac River.’ “

CNN spent much of the morning blaming the Coast Guard for conducting exercises when the nation was jittery on the anniversary of 9/11.

Later Friday morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs took a jab at CNN, saying, “Checking would be good.” Politico reported:

“Responding directly to a CNN reporter’s question about whether the public should have been notified about a training exercise, Gibbs was harshly sarcastic: “If anybody was unnecessarily alarmed based on erroneous reporting that denoted that shots had been fired, I think everybody is apologetic about that.”

“When another journalist noted that the Coast Guard was holding a news conference to take questions on the morning’s events, Gibbs jabbed: ‘Hopefully CNN will go.’ “

CNN later defended its reporting, saying in a statement: “It would have been irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing.”

The Coast Guard account of what happened

In that news conference, Coast Guard Vice Admiral John Currier said the radio traffic was on an unencrypted Coast Guard channel. In a real emergency, he said, the Coast Guard would have switched to encrypted channels. Currier said the radio chatter was “a normal technique” used in training exercises.

He did add that before any transmissions occurred for the exercise, someone would have said something to make it clear that the traffic to follow was part of a drill. The report of shots fired, Currier said, came from a person who said “bang bang” on the radio. He also said that, contrary to reports, the President was not near the bridge where the exercise was staged.

The Coast Guard, Currier said, “trains every day and this was a routine exercise.” And he said this was a “low profile training exercise.” But “this was no ad-libbing by anyone involved. It was pre-planned.”

Currier said the experience was “very instructive for us. … We are going to have to look at how we engage the press. We may even ask some of you for advice,” he told reporters.

Not an isolated problem

Reputable news organizations reporting bad information appears to be a growing problem in the American news media. Some newsrooms are cutting corners by not verifying information. Others are recycling incorrect information by simply reposting the work of others on their Web sites.

Although cable news programs face a certain pressure to be first and fill a lot of time with breaking news, all newsrooms can stumble in the race to be first. The skill of verifying facts is more important than ever. And it may be the only thing that elevates journalism above the rest of the noise on the Internet.

When to go live

The treatment of this story is a reminder of the hazards and responsibilities of live reporting. Media organizations, including CNN, worked heroically to bring us the world-changing events of 9/11/01. If that was a high point of coverage, this one wasn’t.

In the age of hyperactive Twitter chatter and instant reporting, you might want to dust off these guidelines that my colleague Bob Steele and I drafted years ago.

Among the questions we should ask:

  • Beyond competitive factors, what are your motivations for going live? Why do your viewers need to know about this story before journalists have the opportunity to filter the information off the air? What truth testing are you willing to give up in order to speed information to the viewer?
  • Have to you clearly told the public HOW you know what you know and what you do NOT know at this time?
  • Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story (such as a person killing himself or someone else during live coverage)? What outcomes are you not willing to air? Why? How do you know the worst possible outcome will not occur?
  • How does the journalist know that the information he has is true? How many sources have confirmed the information? How does the source know what they say is true? What is this source’s past reliability? How willing is the source to be quoted?
  • What are the consequences, short-term and long-term, of going on the air with the information? What are the consequences of waiting for additional confirmation or for a regular newscast?
  • What is the tone of the coverage? How can the journalist raise viewer awareness of a significant event while minimizing unnecessary hype and fear? Who in your newsroom is responsible for monitoring the tone of what is being broadcast?
  • What electronic safety net such as a tape and signal delay has your station considered that could minimize harm and could give your station time to dump out of live coverage if the situation turns graphic, violent or compromises the safety of others?
  • How clearly does the technical crew at your TV station understand the newsroom’s standard for graphic content? How well are guidelines understood by directors, tape editors, live shot techs, photojournalists, pilots or engineers who might have to make an editorial call when the news director or other formal decision-maker is not available?
  • What factor does the time of day play in your decision to cover a breaking event? For example, if the event occurs when children normally are watching television, how does that fact alter the tone and degree of your coverage?

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