The FBI has released video and photos of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing known as Suspect #1 and Suspect #2. The FBI is asking the public to help identify the suspects, which have been described as ‘armed and dangerous.’ (Click HERE to view photos and video of the suspects.)
However, yesterday reputable news sources, like CNN, FOX News, the Boston Globe, and the Associated Press were all reporting that a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings had been identified and taken into custody. C NN’s John King went so far as to say that a source told him that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male.” The ‘breaking news’ of an arrest in the bombings continued until the “breaking news” became news that NO arrest had been made in the case.
I am not one to automatically defend the media of which I am a part. However, in this case, let’s give the media a break. We watch what we know is ‘live’ reporting about situations described as fluid, meaning there are constant changes in the story. The competitive instinct in news reporting is to be the first to break a story. While accuracy is important to any legitimate news organization, the goal of being first to report a big story often turns accuracy into a causality.
It is important for the public to trust the media, but it is also realistic to say that the public may demand too much from the media. Working on the show at my desk watching the minute-by-minute updates from CNN, FOX and MSNBC, it was interesting to watch how quickly the ‘breaking news’ changed. It’s my job to pay attention to developing news stories, but for all those who were not watching this constantly changing story, they might have heard bits and pieces during the day and feel as if they have the true and accurate story.
Someone who heard that there was an arrest and went through part of their day breaking the news to others, only to learn that the original story was wrong, may feel embarrassed for their part in advancing the false news of an arrest and will quickly blame the media for the mistake. In this case, it would be the fault of the media, but as consumers of the media we should realize that live reporting is just that – live and not planned, scripted or rehearsed.
The 24-hour news networks have to fill 24 hours a day and they all go to wall-to-wall coverage when there is a major breaking story of national interest. This has changed news reporting in America, but it has yet to change the public’s expectations of the media.
As I watched CNN’s aggressive reporting of an arrest in the bombing case, I couldn’t help but think about recent comments made by Jeff Zucker, the new president of CNN. Zucker said that CNN has not been compelling enough and compared the network to a “spare tire in the trunk,” meaning you use it only when you have too. CNN’s ratings have not kept pace with FOX and MSNBC. “You only take it out when you really need it,” Zucker said to the Atlanta Press Club luncheon on Monday. “It’s not one of the four tires on the car all the time. The challenge for us is how to make CNN more essential, how to make it one of the four tires on the car.”
We, the audience, want immediate answers when it comes to tragedies. We want to know who is to blame and why they did it. But those answers cannot always be immediate. In an effort to serve the viewing public, the media have a tendency to give us immediate answers before all the facts are known. So, it now becomes our job to realize that as we watch live coverage of any news event, the first reports may not always be the most factual reports.
While this may cause some to condemn the media for putting speed before accuracy, the inaccurate reports of a suspect and an arrest earlier today do not harm the public or the investigation.
Blaming the media for ‘anything’ has become spectator’s sport, but let’s remember that the media are a collection of humans and humans make mistakes. Our demand for perfection of the media during live coverage is unrealistic.