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EDITORIAL: Disasters show media at its worst

Posted on Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 11:41 am


This past week has been one huge event after another: the horrifying bombings at the Boston Marathon; the discovery of letters that tested positive for ricin addressed to the president and a Mississippi Senator; the subsequent arrest of a suspect in that case; and the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

The news media, we’re sad to say, has been dropping the ball with stunning regularity all week in the relentless quest to be the first to get the story out.

The blunders are well-known by now. CNN, Fox News, The Associated Press and other outlets incorrectly reported on Wednesday afternoon that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the Boston bombings. The New York Post insisted for most of the day Monday that a dozen people had perished in Boston, sticking by that figure for hours, despite authorities repeatedly stating that three people had been killed.

Some of these outlets later issued statements indicating their anonymous sources misunderstood what had happened or were misinformed, as if that absolved them of responsibility for their mistake. Even if the sources were wrong, it makes absolutely no difference. None of those sources made the decision to run those stories before the facts could be verified. The news business is rapidly devolving to the point where getting it out now routinely trumps getting it right.

The concept of an exclusive story or having it first is age-old in this industry. But with the advent of the Internet, the pressure to be first has increased to the point where it seems like accuracy is inches away from becoming an afterthought.

The Post distinguished itself yet again on Thursday morning, running a front-page photo two young men under the headline “Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The story and photo appeared in The Post and on the paper’s website before the FBI released any official information or photos on persons of interest in the bombings. The photo immediately drew widespread criticism and questions from other news outlets and countless websites, with some claiming that one of the young men in the photo is a local high school track athlete and others going as far as to proclaim their innocence outright.

The fact that these blunders are getting as much ink and screen space as they are is deeply troubling. Not becoming part of the story is journalism 101, a point far too many of our brethren seem to have forgotten.

And for what? With huge stories like these that are being covered by outlets from all over the world, scoring an exclusive at this point in time is unlikely. All that’s left then is beating the other guy to the punch. But is being able to say, “We had it first,” really worth shredding your reputation by providing the public with wrong, and in the case of the two men The Post presented as possible suspects, potentially dangerous information? We think not.

The Tullahoma News