The trouble started early Wednesday afternoon, when CNN reported that there was a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, describing him only as a "dark-skinned individual." That didn't seem like trouble. Like all good foreshadowing, it wasn't obvious that it was an indication of trouble to come. It seemed like a neutral description of a possible suspect.
Then CBS tweeted, "Man sought as possible suspect is WHITE MALE, wearing white baseball cap on backwards, gray hoodie and black jacket." Was the dude a dark-skinned person? A white man? A dark-skinned white man? Sure, there's bound to be some confusion, but it seemed like we would find out soon enough, especially with CNN reporting, "an arrest has been made."
And then CNN had to backtrack. Majorly. There was no arrest. See the above video from Talking Points Memo to get a feel for how they changed their tune.
Think Progress reports that this came, in part, on the heels of the FBI making a public statement chastising CNN for just basically rumor-mongering. The FBI statement reads, in part:
Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate.
It seems like over and over again we learn that a news organization can either be first or it can be accurate. CNN seems to have decided being first is better than being right. But again, referring back to the Think Progress piece, screwing up this bad has real-life consequences. The Saudi kid who was interviewed yesterday was a witness. An innocent bystander. Framed by the media as a possible villain. In a city with Boston's racial history, it's playing with fire to announce that the suspect is dark-skinned, especially if no such suspect exists. Getting this stuff wrong isn't just embarrassing, though I hope CNN is embarrassed. People can be hurt. Innocent people.
Dylan Byers over at Politico has an email from some media bigwig complaining at all the people on Twitter laughing at this "news" coverage.
The snark on Twitter has reached new heights. ... It's not about getting to the truth or serving the public good, it's about who can make the wittiest joke to impress their friends. This is an important story for the nation, and reporters from organizations new and old are trying to cover it. People make mistakes.
I don't believe CNN made "mistakes" Wednesday afternoon. A mistake would be if CNN saw video of the alleged bomber and investigated him and identified the wrong person. That would be a mistake — a terrible one. A mistake would be reading the wrong police report — "Oh, crap, the suspect in a shooting on Monday is a dark-skinned individual. I just saw the day and the word 'suspect' and made the connection to the bombing." A mistake would be assuming that some dude you saw get arrested was the suspect in this case.
But saying an arrest has been made when you haven't seen any police activity at the jail, or before you've laid eyes on such an arrest or been told through official channels, isn't reporting. It's just spreading gossip, at best. At worst, it's passing along what you read in another outlet as if that's the truth (which is what I do, and I'm one of those terrible snarky people on Twitter). You can't claim to be better than us when you're doing the same thing as us and passing it off as reporting.
People complain all the time about the bias of the news. I don't think biased news is the real problem — you can adjust for the biases of whatever outlet you're engaged with. The real problem is that our 24-hour national news networks don't seem to have anything beyond the bias. There's very little to no real reporting. There are few real facts at the bottom of things. All they have left is spreading gossip and looking good on TV while doing it.
And no one benefits from this. The public is ill-served and the news stations' ratings suffer. An yet, there seems to be no real impetus to change.