The jokes came fast, and in a certain sense, they were furious. Breaking news is broken was the general consensus among the temporary media experts expressing disdain through social media at CNN for the network’s big scoop, which turned out to be completely false.
Early on Wendesday afternoon, multiple reports emerged from several media outlets claiming that investigators in the Boston Marathon bombings had identified a possible suspect. After this brief bout of congruity, it all went strange with conflicting reports coming from different news agencies and, in the case of CNN, from within the same news network. Depending on what article you were reading, whose Twitter feed you were following or what network you were watching, a suspect might have been arrested, identified, not identified, on the way to a court house, or in hiding.
CNN reporters Fran Townsend (through federal sources) and John King (through local sources) were the first to report that an arrest had been made in the case. Less than an hour later, former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes told CNN that according to several of his sources, no arrest had been made. Later, Townsend came back to reverse what she had previous said on air, confirming that there was no arrest after speaking with additional sources who told her that authorities didn’t even have a name of the suspect.
King’s media culpa was similar to Townsend’s, but he refuted that investigators didn’t know the name of the wanted man, claiming that a suspect had definitely been identified. This prompted an unintentionally hilarious debate among the talking heads on the network over what “identified” actually meant, live on the streets of Boston. The inadvertent humor peaked when King attempted to summarize everything he was hearing by suggesting that for certain, something was afoot.
In addition to the heaping spoonfuls of scorn served through Twitter and Facebook, comedian Jon Stewart was especially merciless in his spirited take down of the day’s coverage, referring to CNN as the human centipede of news on The Daily Show. On Sunday, the New York Times published an excellent bit of criticism from David Carr that essentially called for a better distinction between newscasters and reporters.
There are several reasons to mock CNN. There’s the self-importance, the sensational catch phrase labeling and their emphasis on production over content. However, making mistakes in their reporting, even ones as high-profiled as Townsend’s and King’s, shouldn’t be the target for scorn that it’s been. Perhaps, if an erroneous story was reported on a one-hour evening newscast, or if it was twenty years ago, we’d have reason to be upset. But it didn’t happen then. It happened in an age when the accessibility of technology allows us to demand immediacy.
However, that immediacy comes with a price. There’s no longer an easy answer to what’s happening. Stories develop and we are now along for that ride, and sometimes it’s a bumpy one.
It seems exceedingly odd to me that we would hold a medium that has evolved so rapidly to the same standards that we did before the increased speed of that evolution. News isn’t presented to us in a sculpted fashion anymore on television, manicured and primed by anchors and reporters. On a 24 hour news network, the story comes to us as it happens. We read, see or hear the story as it unfolds. Sometimes, that comes with faulty information, which is what Townsend and King derived from their sources last week. Sometimes, it doesn’t. The thing is, we only learn what reporters are hearing, and it’s an ongoing process.
Frankly, I want to know what plugged-in reporters are hearing. If John King has sources telling him something, and from what CNN has said in the aftermath, they had three sources all saying the same thing, I want to be informed of it. Is it really assuming to much to expect audiences to accept news with a “best to our knowledge” caveat with everything being reported?
That’s not to suggest that media outlets should have carte blanche to recklessly publish whatever they wish. We saw the actual evils of this during last week when the New York Post blatantly accused innocent people on its front page and certain Reddit users conducted witch hunts based solely on online research. This is actually harmful, and should be the stuff of which lawsuits are comprised.
What CNN did was give us a glimpse of a news story as it was being shaped and corrected to the detriment of no one other than those who were willing to accept it without the slightest bit of critical thinking. Reporters, as fallible human beings relying on other fallible human beings as sources are understandably not infallible. Fortunately, there exists an entire smorgasbord of news outlets for us to consider and calculate a likelihood of accuracy pertaining to the information that we desire.
CNN’s performance as a news agency over the course of the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings is exactly what we’ve asked for. The funniest part of it all is that those most angered by the misinformation that CNN presented are the ones who made the exact same mistake in believing what was being reported as gospel truth. You believed CNN just as they believed their sources.
In general, we tend to be curious to the worst possible degree. We want information on what’s happening, but we expect to receive it in the easiest manner possible, even to the point of constructing an infallible news person from a nostalgia-warped view of the past. We hearken back to this ideal that never actually existed and never could have existed under the restrictions that govern our current means of consuming news.
It’s like ordering your own platonic ideal of a filet mignon, and then complaining once it’s served to you that you have to chew it. When it comes back from the kitchen, processed to the point of pulverized pablum, you then complain that it doesn’t have the properties that you expected. The truth is that there is no steak as easy to taste as the one that you imagined. You have to chew it to get what you want.
The same is true of the news. Relying on a single outlet with so many available is just as ridiculous as holding those outlets to some arbitrary standard. The takeaway from this past week’s coverage is to embrace it all, and think in probability and likelihood as opposed to definitive truth with what’s being reported to you. If greater media accessibility begets greater media responsibility, surely this addition doesn’t completely rest on the shoulders of media outlets. It rests on us as well.
Sections of today’s media column were taken from the amalgamation of news coverage posted last Wednesday.