There is nothing new about the fact that a major breaking news event unleashed a torrent of rumors, hoaxes, reporting errors and misinformation. That some of them still reverberate, and will continue to, is also par for the course.
That’s not the only new reality. I’ve noticed that breaking news errors also give rise to three corollary events: the debunking and crowdsourcing of information, public explanations from news organizations about how they avoided mistakes, and an unwillingness on the part of the mistaken to accept responsibility.
The first two are encouraging, the third is destructive.
Debunking and crowdsourcing
As I noted during Hurricane Sandy, one encouraging, parallel trend is more news organizations are working to debunk the misinformation they see spreading. This week it was Mother Jones, iMediaEthics, Snopes (of course), and CNN (!), among others.
Joined with these initiatives to call out false information are efforts to crowdsource new facts and dig into the available information for new clues. This week, the lion’s share of that work took hold on on Reddit and 4Chan. News organizations also regularly put out calls for sources and more information, but for now, the citizen-led, collaborative efforts to investigate seem more likely to take place in certain online communities.
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal cautioned against what he called “online vigilantism”:
Investigating these bombings is just not a job for “the crowd,” even if technology makes such collaboration possible. Even if we were to admit that Reddit was “more efficient” in processing the influx of media around the bombing, which would be a completely baseless speculation/stretch/defense, it still wouldn’t make sense to create a lawless space in which self-appointed citizens decide which other citizens have committed crimes.
It’s understandable why people will search for a way to try and make sense of a senseless event. It’s natural to want to channel anger and fear into what feels like a productive act, a contribution. Gathering together online to do this seems entirely natural today.
Along with those motivations, it’s also fair to suggest that the errors made on major breaking stories lead some people to feel they should take elements of reporting and investigation into their own hands.
I hope the media and non-media entities continue to debunk information. And I hope crowdsourced investigations lead to the spread of verification and debunking skills that can aid in the process of digging into photos, video and other material to unearth new facts.
Sharing best practices
The second trend — and an unquestionably positive one — is for news organizations to share how they managed to avoid making mistakes. You could call it boasting, except these follow-up posts often contain valuable tips and insight into how you avoid mistakes during breaking news coverage.
Cory Bergman, the general manager of Breaking News, emphasized in a blog post the importance of building up a list of credible sources related to the topic at hand. In this case, you needed sources in Boston, on the ground. He wrote:
Here’s our technique: moments after the explosions, our editors tracked dozens of Boston news sources — news organizations, officials and eyewitnesses — looking for a new report on the story. Just as on-the-ground news organizations compare sources before reporting new information, our editors compared these new reports with coverage from other news and official sources.
Sure, multiple sources. Pretty obvious. But here’s the element of this that matters: CNN later said its incorrect report of an arrest was based on three sources. So they used multiple sources as well. And they used, or at least they say they used, primary sources at the local and national level.
Breaking news aggregated a mix of primary and secondary sources. So not only do you need multiple sources, but ideally you get a mix of the type of sources — and you pay attention to what others are not reporting as much as you look at what your sources are telling you.
Bergman later wrote a second post to share some of the chat exchanges between Breaking News staffers to illustrate why they held back when CNN, AP and others were declaring an arrest had been made. Here’s what senior editor Stephanie Clary wrote to her colleagues after CNN, AP and Fox News all reported an arrest:
I think this is where we can provide clarity versus confusion, and just hold a bit. Because I think it’ll be more clear soon. No local orgs reporting it independently is odd to me.
Making that kind of real-time gutsy declaration public helps other journalists see that there’s glory in restraint. It’s a powerful example.
Similarly, Malachy Browne, the news editor of news agency Storyful, wrote a great blog post about how his team verified information in the aftermath of the explosions. One aspect of his advice came down to having the right tools (and training to use the tools):
A well-honed Twitter list of reputable and authenticated sources is invaluable in fast-moving situations. Geo-location tools like GeoFeedia and iWitness help to identify sources on the ground. As content emerges, we can make use of a wealth of public data which exists online to help us establish facts.
Public data may sound fancy but the team st Storyful used basic things like public phone directories to track down people who’d shot and uploaded video. They used Google Street View to compare footage to local landmarks to confirm locations.
Another example was a post from Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, “A journalist’s guide to tweeting during a crisis.” Along with good advice, he struck a humble note by including examples of where he went wrong in the past:
First, do not pass on speculation. For much of the day, the New York Post was sharing unconfirmed reports, which were later proven erroneous, that 12 people had been killed in the attack. I actually retweeted BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, one of the smartest and most conscientious journalists on Twitter, and repeated this tidbit on the official Slate account. In hindsight, it would have been wiser for both of us to broadcast that news in more skeptical terms.
Unwillingness to face error
It’s disturbing that news organizations commit major errors and then refuse to own up to them.
With the SCOTUS error, Fox News refused to acknowledge that it had made a mistake at all. Instead, it insisted, “Fox reported the facts, as they came in.”
In contrast, CNN issued an apology for making the same mistake. But not this time. After reporting that a suspect had been arrested, CNN refused to go the apology route (though it did issue corrections):
When CNN botched the Obamacare ruling, it apologized. Per @mlcalderone, no apology this time. When sources had new info, “we adjusted.”
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter)
April 17, 2013
Even worse was the refusal by the New York Post to own up to its major mistake of reporting that 12 people had been killed in the bombings, and the New York Daily News initially refusing to explain why it altered an image it ran on the front page.
The refusal to acknowledge error — to be accountable — is poisonous for the outlets involved and that only compounds the damage. As my colleague Andrew Beaujon tweeted yesterday:
News orgs that won’t be held accountable for their decision-making have zero business holding others accountable: bit.ly/12mletj
— Andrew Beaujon (@abeaujon) April 17, 2013
This is one trend that needs to be stopped.