Less than an hour into breaking coverage of Friday’s shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, several reputable media outlets disseminated inaccurate reports about the latest episode of “Gunman Gone Wild.”
The BBC, Toronto’s Globe and Mail and several other news organizations had fallen for a fake tweet stating that ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden had been shot dead and that a radical Christian group had claimed responsibility – all according to the LAPD.
Source of the bogus tweet was @HeadlineNews, although for some unknown reason the Globe and Mail credited it to Reuters and Associated Press. Once the information proved false, news outlets quickly ran corrections or took down their stories.
Ho hum. Inaccurate reportage of breaking news has become so commonplace, it’s almost the rule rather than the exception. As consumers, we see it as the cost of doing business.
In a media universe in which being first can be measured in tenths of seconds, there is no percentage in waiting anymore, even if you’re wrong. Especially if you’re wrong. By the time the error is discovered, you’ve moved on to your next breathless byte.
Breaking news is a moving target. Take enough shots, sooner or later you’ll hit something. Lock and load, news hounds.
Despite years’ hard experience, the media in general, and TV news in particular, appear to have learned nothing from their mistakes. They continue to operate on the assumption that two words need never apply to live coverage of a breaking story – unexpressed thought.
Sure, the ineptness is laughable. It provides rich fodder for Jon Stewart et al, but it’s easy to forget that these are literally life-and-death situations, not punch lines.
It was only in September -– September! -- that NBC and CBS initially misreported the identity of the gunman in the Washington Navy Yard mass murder. Both networks had to retract their IDs, which focused on the same man. Thirteen people were killed, including the shooter.
In April, CNN ended up with more egg on its face than an omelet when John King reported "exclusively" that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombings. Fox News, the Boston Globe and AP followed suit. All four organizations, among others, had to take back the erroneous story.
In December, CNN also led the media hit parade in misidentifying the shooter in the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre. Quoting anonymous law enforcement sources, CNN reported that Ryan Lanza was the murderer of at least 26 people. In fact, it was his brother, Adam Lanza. Again, CNN and numerous others were forced to unscrew the pooch.
Moral of this story is simple: In media, speed kills. It kills accuracy with the same speedy efficacy of a mass murderer. Yes, it takes time to verify sources, but it’s well worth the investment. Getting it right, even if it means finishing second or third or fourth, is more valuable to the public than being first and wrong.
With journalistic credibility at an all-time low, what is there to lose?