Broken news: the lesson from Boston’s journalism school

When the President of the United States tells the press in a nationally televised address that it needs to get its act together, you know the Fourth Estate is in very, very bad shape.

“In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right. That’s why we have investigations. That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts.”

David Carr, my favorite media critic and the most perceptive reporter covering the transformation of the news business, moved from his customary home on the lefthand column of the New York Times’ Monday business page to a position of unmistakable prominence in the center of the page, leaving no doubt in my mind that today’s column is one of the more important ones he’ll ever write.

“The pressure to produce is ratcheted up accordingly. Editors and producers begin leaning on their reporters, and they, in turn, end up in the business of wish fulfillment, working hard to satisfy their audience, and meeting the expectations of their bosses. It creates a system in which bad reporting can thrive and dominoes can quickly fall the wrong way.”

Throughout last week’s blur of news and news about the news, was a constant theme of how social media had transformed the news for ever, how citizen journalists with their shaky cell phone video, crowd-sourced forensic vigilantes on Reddit and 4Chan, and a torrent of tweets from law enforcement, reporters, and excited observers were killing the news beast and replacing it with something new and raw and immediate.

Then everything broke and I’m not talking about breaking news.

Alexis Madrigal, one of the smartest voices writing about technology as senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote a scathing indictment of the fools who pinned the crime on a missing Brown student, tormenting his already panicked family with a self-fulfilling series of tweets that spilled from one misinformed source to more credible ones. The New York Post put, on their front page, the pictures of two innocent men circled by the crowd at 4Chan as likely suspects, leading one to turn himself into the authorities to plead his innocence.

As Carr writes in the Times, the biggest blunder, the most inexcusable, was committed by CNN on Wednesday, when John King erroneously reported a suspect was in custody. As Carr painfully reminds us, CNN is the source we’re supposed to turn to during times of crisis, the journalistic institution that defined the new 24-hour, constant news cycle. Instead, it was painful to watch, to watch and hear talking heads trying to fill the tyranny of dead air with babble, conjecture, recap and opinion. One look at Al Sharpton and I was done with MSNBC. Fox never came on once. I avoided the television and stuck to a stream of WBUR the national public radio affiliate in Boston and of course, Twitter.

On Friday evening, as the Governor declared an all-clear and let the people of Watertown out of their lockdown to stretch their legs, my wife and I switched on CNN to laugh at the network’s cluelessness and discomfort. I jeered the rugged looking reporter standing on a sidewalk behind the Arsenal Mall, laughed at how he kept trying to tame his wind-blown haircut, and told my wife, “These guys have just been making it up all week and they’re getting pounded for it.”

Then the reporter stopped talking, removed his ear piece and cocked his head like a dog hearing another dog bark in the distance.

“Do you hear that?” he asked. I laughed. CNN was delivering the drama as expected.

“I think I heard gun fire.”

The irony is that he had heard gunfire, the shots as the police converged on the shrink-wrapped boat in a nearby backyard. He performed the single act of pure reportage I saw all week from the media, he heard something first-hand and he reported it.

In the end, it wasn’t the Globe or the Herald or CNN that gave the world the news that it was all over. That was a tweet courtesy of the Boston Police Department.

My point — as an ex-reporter who worked in a city newsroom well before the Internet, back when newspapers were still healthy and secure; as a former hack who ducked under yellow police tape and stood around asking questions of cops and bystanders with a camera around his neck and a spiral reporter’s notebook in his hands — is the old journalistic craft of knocking on doors and asking questions, of checking facts and verifying sources, of biding one’s time until one had the story nailed. of risking the loss of a scoop in the interest of accuracy was underscored last week by those reporters and editors who sat on rumors despite the pressure of the moment, who took the time to confirm before speaking.

The moment of the blasts was first reported on Twitter, and the news-dinosaur haters crowed that it meant a new era in news because the Times and the Associated Press and the “mainstream” media took another 15 to 30 minutes to get the news out. Well, the reason is simple. When they did report it they had confirmation, not speculation to go on.

There have been some big, unforgettable moments in post-Internet journalism, mostly catastrophes that grabbed everyone’s attention,and held it for hours if not days. The last pre-Internet news moment, I argue, was the first Gulf War, when CNN came into its own. The first Internet news moment was the explosion of TWA Flight 800 south of Long Island, the first time the audience could get news on demand and not wait for the trucks to deliver it. 9/11 …. a whole other story. During all of those events the press rose to the occasion and used the new medium to good effect. But Boston was a study in failure all the way around.

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