By Maia Palmer ’16
April 15, 2013. I walked into my dorm room to find my roommate Rachel pacing, clutching a phone in one hand. She had just heard about the Boston Marathon bombings and one of her friends was in the race. Unable to reach the girl by cell phone, Rachel had turned on the news in hopes of getting new information. Every few minutes, however, the newscasters reported information later found false.
In the rush to report breaking news, journalists often report unconfirmed or misreported information. I believe the general public would be better served if journalists reported only what they know to be facts. Misinformation can have huge consequences, especially if viewers are trying to find out information about loved ones who may have been affected by breaking news. With events like the Boston Marathon and shootings, accurate information has become more important than ever. In the worst cases, people are reported dead, causing unnecessary grief to families.
There are far too many instances of misreporting on breaking news. For example, the mass shooting in a U.S. Navy yard in Washington D.C. was misreported numerous times. A varying number of casualties, a higher number of perpetrators, and a second shooting that never occurred were reported. With many reporters sharing different stories, it is hard to deduce what happened.
Second, in the Boston Marathon situation many news sources relied on “informants” for their information, which ultimately led them to report untrue information. The New York Post had a front-page picture of two “bag men” who federal agents were seeking, according to an informant. It was soon found that these two men had nothing to do with the bombing. NPR spokesman David Folkenflik commented, “…when you have one of the nation’s 10 largest newspapers pointing the finger at [the men] because a photograph was passed between two federal law-enforcement officials, in reality you’re indicating a great degree of guilt.” Relying on second hand information often leads to confusion and false accusations.
Lastly, in the Arizona shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was reported killed, a fact that was later changed as it turned out he was only wounded. Errors in reporting human lives like this has the potential to hurt viewers who are close to the victims and are counting on the news for updates on the situation. But journalists are not infallible.
Folkenflik weighed in on why misreports like this happen, saying, “in the aftermath of developing events [authoritativeness and immediacy] are incompatible and that we can’t expect news organizations to provide us exactly what happened right away.”
Time sensitivity aside, journalists have standards that they should abide by. One of these is the SPJ Code of Ethics. One of its main goals is to minimize harm. Its first rule in this section states that a journalist should “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” This ethic is often forgotten as journalists rush to report breaking news. Their misreporting brings grief to those adversely impacted when more time and discretion on the journalist’s part would have avoided this.
In the rush to give audience’s immediate information on breaking news, the media neglects its ability to check facts and ensure the truth is being reported. Of course, in breaking news situations people need information as quickly as possible, but this does not mean standards can be forgotten. I urge journalists to remember the ethics they should follow. Thought must be given to those who will be impacted by information reported; discretion should never take a back seat to speed. To viewers, I urge you to check stories against other news sites and to realize that information may be false. If people held off from making judgments and passing stories until facts were confirmed, we could ensure that no one suffered the effects of misinformation and reporting.