When you work as a reporter at a small community newspaper, you learn early on that making a mistake – grammatical, factual or otherwise – will typically earn you a public flogging by way of scathing letter to the editor. So, you double- and triple-check your facts before printing.
But, something has happened in this 24/7 news cycle and Twitter-as-news cycle. Accuracy and truth in reporting has become less important than being the first to break a story.
I was shocked to observe it happening during the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. For example: The name of the shooter most news outlets had been using all day was the wrong name (it was the shooter’s brother). The first victim – the shooter’s mother – wasn’t, in fact, a teacher at that school. At one point there was a second shooter, and then there wasn’t.
Bad information. Just plain wrong. But it was out there and people were repeating it. Re-tweeting it.
It seems history is repeating itself with the Boston Marathon attack.
Shortly after the blasts, one news outlet said 17 people were killed. We all know that the actual number is three. Another outlet reported that a Saudi national was in custody and being guarded at a local hospital as a suspect. It turns out the innocent man was held down by frantic people in the crowd who thought he’d had something to do with it. He was never in police custody as a suspect; just recovering at a local hospital, like so many others.
Then, two days after the bombings, news outlets and social media erupted that a suspect had been arrested. An hour later: No arrests. It wasn’t until the Boston Police Department and FBI confirmed there had been no arrest made in the attack that the claims died down.
It dawned on me during the early moments of the Boston Marathon attack that as news consumers, we’re all part of the problem. We all want the information as quickly as possible. We re-tweet and share on Facebook the moment things are announced, whether or not stories contain a credible source. An “unnamed” or “unofficial” source does not count as credible, people.
Like so many Americans, Sandy Hook will always be on my heart. As a journalist, my mind will also linger on the shooter’s brother, who not only lost his family and has to live with the pain his brother caused, but whose name was vilified for the better part of a day, despite his innocence.
In the future, do your own fact-checking and wait for a named source. Contact the news outlet to let them know you value accuracy over rapidity.
It’s time to demand better.