As reports came in of an explosion near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, people were shocked. Instantly, reports from various news outlets began pouring in and people were glued to their TVs, phones and computers, desperate for updates. Information spread via word of mouth and text messages as the public scrambled to understand what had just happened. People were desperate for information regarding their loved ones, and relied on journalists to uncover new pieces of information as the situation developed.
However, the reporting done by the major news outlets was reckless, seemingly seeking to sensationalize on an already sensational story. Many news outlets referred to the explosions as bombings before any concrete evidence had been found. Reports of a third bomb poured in, but this would later prove to a completely unrelated fire at the JFK Library.
The New York Post reported that a Saudi man was being treated as a suspect and was under surveillance. In reality, he was merely a spectator injured in the blast who was being treated at a local hospital. The Boston PD denied the report, stating “We haven’t been notified of any arrests or anyone apprehended.” The Boston Globe also reported a similar story, which was denied again by the Boston Police.
We live in an era of constant communication and a steady stream of information. I understand that there is the “fog of war” argument, where information can sometimes be released before all the facts are verified and there is confusion regarding the scene. However, this is not a valid excuse when the false information that is released in a news bulletin could have easily been verified by a quick phone call or internet search. There is a distinct difference between releasing information that a journalist believes to be true (i.e., verified by an official source or eyewitness account) and that information later needing to be retracted or corrected, and publishing false information that has little evidence or verification.
The Washington Post later released an article that I felt showed a complete lack of remorse or respect for the SPJ Code of Ethics. The article, “Mistakes in news reporting happen, but do they matter?“ basically explained that in today’s era of instant information, any error made in reporting, even by a major conglomerates, really has no lasting impact because corrections can be later made and sent out immediately to hundreds of readers.
As a student just starting out in the field of journalism, that article made me feel sick to my stomach. The article relied far too heavily on new information spreading out quickly to the masses, but failed to account for the old unreliable information also traveling just as quickly. There is no justification for how poorly this story was covered, and I hope that in the future, journalists will look to this past week’s failure as an example of what not to do. I know I will.