Being first vs. being right first

CNN and the Associated Press should already know this, but hardly anyone will remember if you were first to get the story right, and hardly anyone will forget if you were first and got the story wrong.

And talk about wrong: Having someone under arrest is a binary state—either law enforcement officials have someone in custody or they don’t. And in this case, despite repeated claims from CNN and the AP, there was no one in custody.

As Amy Davidson perfectly puts it in the above-linked New Yorker blog post:

There was a moment, between two and three o’clock on Wednesday, when the phrase “conflicting reports” seemed inadequate to describe the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation.

The reports and their conflicting nature prompted a surprisingly sharp statement from the FBI pointing out the unintended consequences of reports like the AP and CNN’s, and the ones yesterday, repeated by Fox News, CNN, and the New York Post that a Saudi Arabian man was a suspect in the bombing. He was not; he was one of the more than 100 wounded, and was tackled by an overzealous bystander because he was fleeing the scene. Which, obviously, was the right thing to do.

I understand the drive to be first. Journalism is a competitive business, and being the first one to report something can be a major advantage, at least in the short run. But a police reporter on his first major case wouldn’t make some of the mistakes journalists and the AP and CNN (among many others) made this week. It makes me wonder who, exactly, the sources they were relying on why, and what those journalists must have done to make the sources so angry.

The idea that the FBI proposed. trying to get confirmation from official sources, is laughable. Journalists aren’t supposed to wait around and be spoon-fed the official story. A vigorous media finds and follows leads outside what police or FBI officials talk about publicly, and that’s an important part of the media’s role in society. But accuracy counts. There is enough confusion and misinformation circulating during a big story like the Boston marathon bombing, which makes it all the more important for news organizations to not just be first, but the first to be right.


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