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.
The public remains "pretty understanding" of errors as long as a news outlet owns up to them, says Scott Maier, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon who has researched reporting mistakes. "The research shows that people who [are sources of] the news media know the media won't get it all right all the time. There's an expectation that when news is fast-breaking and unfolding that reporters won't always have it right."
Indeed, stories like the Boston Marathon bombings are often misreported. Erroneous news reports about new threats were rife in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. In 1996, some media reports falsely identified a security guard named Richard Jewell as a suspect in the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing. And similar false identifications followed the 1995 truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the 2011 shooting massacre in Oslo, Norway, and the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December.
People are less tolerant when mistakes aren't acknowledged or the on-air speculation veers into ethnic or racial stereotypes, as the discussion of "dark-skinned" or alleged Muslim suspects did this week, says Emily Bell, a journalism professor at Columbia University.
"You're inviting a very visceral reaction when you wander into that territory," she says. "The unintended consequence is that it cast instant suspicion on a lot of innocent people and adds very little" to the public understanding of the story.
Maier singled out the New York Post for publishing a photo of two men on its cover Thursday under the headline "Bag Men," implying that the men were suspects or accomplices when neither has been charged. The newspaper has yet to correct those accounts. "If you're mistaken, you need to examine what went wrong and why," he says. "I haven't seen that kind of acknowledgment. It's arrogant and it infuriates people."
But Jurkowitz says readers and viewers have a short memory for any specific mistake. Just as the public doesn't remember which news outlet got a story first, it also doesn't remember which one got the story wrong, he says.
"I'd be skeptical that there is lasting damage for any news organization unless they made a habit of this," Jurkowitz says.
On the other hand, the bad news about bad reporting, he says, is that mistakes damage the media generally.
"To the extent that people are aware of the mistakes, it just reinforces the public's distrust" of the media," he says. "It just amplifies the sense that the media doesn't care about getting things right, that all it cares about is ratings, that accuracy doesn't matter. . . . The public's opinion of the media isn't high to begin with. And this doesn't help."