North Texas Daily

Broken news

Broken news

April 17
21:28 2013

Yesterday was a rough day for CNN. Sure, the bombings at the Boston Marathon this week whipped all of our favorite cable news networks into a frenzy of coverage, but CNN has the biggest reason to be a little embarrassed after yesterday afternoon.

The venerable news giant got a little ahead of itself by breaking the news that an arrest was made in connection with the Boston bombing, with anchor John King reporting that video surveillance of the scene revealed a suspect.

At time of print, some of this information is still true. What’s not true is that this suspect has been identified or apprehended in any way—the Boston Police Department and the FBI deny that any arrests have taken place at this time, and the “possible suspect” in the video footage has not been identified.

The reason for this mix-up? According to the FBI and other Boston law enforcement, CNN didn’t do its homework.

In fact, the confusion grew so quickly that the FBI was forced to issue an official response. And it sounds like its agents weren’t so happy about the way the media was treating the case.

Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. 

Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.

– FBI press release

Let’s sum this up: CNN’s law enforcement sources for this “breaking news” were allegedly mostly unofficial, and some of them gave contrary information on whether or not law enforcement on the ground had actually made an arrest.

But a scoop this juicy is a once-in-a-lifetime, career-defining opportunity for any broadcast news journalist, so caution hit the wind and the story hit the web.

The network even briefly reported that the suspect in custody was a “dark-skinned, male individual.” Moments later, CBS apparently found an unreliable source of their own and began tweeting that the suspect was actually a white male. That’s just awkward for everyone, right?

Frantic to ride the wave and avoid looking slow or unprofessional, other news outlets jumped on the story, sourcing CNN instead of taking the time to verify the details.

By the time the Boston Police Department and the FBI put the brakes on this whole mess, the wild speculation and poorly-sourced sensationalism had rolled like a really humiliating tumbleweed across CNN, the Associated Press and Fox News, along with dozens of smaller outlets.

All three of these major news providers were forced to walk these statements back and cover for their shady fact-finding by blaming a lack of communication between reporters and inside sources.

The moral of this story? When millions of people rely on you for the latest information, it’s probably a good idea to make sure what you’re saying is actually true. Sure, a few faster, shoddier news sources might beat you to the punch, but that means they’ll just be the first to be totally wrong.

Shooting first and asking questions later isn’t just dishonest and risky, it’s bad journalism. We can’t really tell you which news outlets to rely on when issues like these pop up, but we recommend reading as many as you can and being patient as the details work themselves out.

There are only two things you should remember from yesterday’s three-ring network circus: The people investigating these horrible acts of terror are making progress—and when they find whoever’s behind the attacks in Boston, you’ll probably hear it wrong first on CNN.

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