By Paul Farhi
The Washington Post
Over and over this week, the media got it wrong. A suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings had been arrested; in fact, one hadn't. A Saudi national was in custody in the attacks; in fact, there was no such individual. The two actual suspects had ties to jihadist groups; well, that wasn't clear at the time, either.
Mistakes happen often in reporting big, complicated, fast-moving stories like the one in Boston. The question is: How much does erroneous reporting matter these days?
One answer: perhaps less than ever.
There's no excuse for getting the facts wrong. It's a basic rule of journalism, drummed into every rookie reporter's head: Get the story right. In addition to potentially harming a news outlet's credibility, erroneous reporting can have devastating consequences, from ruining a subject's reputation to endangering public safety. Competitive pressure and the desire for scoops can increase the potential for errors.
But reporting mistakes may not be as consequential as they used to be, media observers say.
Although errors can travel faster than ever in a wired age, corrections and accurate information flow faster, too, says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based think tank. In fact, minutes after the Associated Press, CNN and Fox News reported Wednesday that an arrest had been made, the information was being refuted by other sources via television and social media, he notes. The original sources soon corrected their mistakes.
"Information gets walked back very fast," Jurkowitz says. "There is a self-correcting mechanism in journalism that's quicker than it's ever been."
What's more, unlike an earlier age in which live breaking news was reported by a limited number of broadcast outlets, there are now multiple sources of information for any major news event, he says. This enables readers and viewers to "triangulate" any piece of breathlessly reported information simply by hitting the "refresh" button on an Internet browser or Twitter feed or by changing the channel.