As someone who studied journalism and spent the first part of my career calling myself a journalist, I take the profession and its role in society quite seriously. And while I am also not foolish enough to lump all journalists together, after this week it’s safe to say the profession as a whole needs a gut check.
The offenses since Monday have been too many to mention. The first and primary offender was, is and will forever be the New York Post, which entered the week as a quasi-journalistic outlet to start. The next time anyone has the urge to describe a New York Post front page scoop as news, they should get a second source – and not the National Enquirer.
But this problem goes well beyond the much-begrudged Murdoch tabloid. Almost every major news-reporting outlet has taken their lumps this week. CNN and AP reporting a suspect in custody was the second most egregious offense, causing all the other media outlets to scamper for the courthouse.
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The offenses continue, big and small. And I think I know why.
Just this morning (Friday, April 19th) with one suspect dead and the other on the run, an MSNBC anchor interrupted her guest to read a tweet from the Boston Police Department.
She said, this tweet just in from the Boston Police Department. Then she paused, as to show some level of journalistic concern about what she was going to read aloud to hundreds of thousands of viewers -- MSNBC, so maybe thousands -- and she asked her cohost if the twitter handle was definitely the Boston PD. He said, “Uh-huh.” And she announced, “Confirmed! This just in from the Boston Police Department.” Then, she read the tweet saying that the Boston PD was going to detonate a device in a certain neighborhood, as a warning to residents.
Confirmed? Is that how we confirm stuff?
After she read the tweet, she went back to the expert guest to ask what this could mean. He said that police were possibly exploding the car the two suspects had been driving. And I thought to myself, that’s probably wrong.
This minor scene was emblematic of the ones repeated a hundred times across all the networks, pretty much 24-7 since Monday.
Journalists used to wade through the sea of rumors and report what they knew was accurate for us to consume. They were wrong at times, but more often they were right. Now it seems many outlets are content to report the sea of rumors first, and let us all wade through it together.
To show the truly sad state of things, internet sources like Gawker.com have taken up the role of debunking reports that are coming from so-called “mainstream” media. That’s the state of affairs. (And thank you Gawker for doing so).
Why are things so bad in journalism today? Some of it is obvious. For one, the need to scoop has outpaced the desire to be accurate. And this is certainly not meant to apply to all journalists. Most I’m sure, and I know quite a few, still want to be accurate above all else and are themselves sickened by the failings of the profession as a whole covering this story. Yet, there is no doubt that the collective profession failed this week.
Why does it matter? We learned that today. When it was reported that the City of Boston was ordered to shelter in place, I didn’t believe it at first. Last week, I would have.
The answer to the problem may be a simple one. When I went to journalism school, we were told to double source everything. Clearly, most offending outlets failed to follow this simple rule. And all week, rumors led to speculation which led to headlines. Before the CNN flub, a law enforcement "source" was the standard. After the flub, that network at least started including the phrase, "sources confirm." Note the plural.
And the answer may be a little more complex. Maybe it’s time for an industry-created commission on the state of journalism. I hate commissions. But this is a case where one is needed. The same way the major news outlets come together to figure out Presidential exit polls, maybe there is a need to set up and establish a new (or renewed) set of self-imposed industry rules.
To be fair and accurate, there have been examples of good journalism too. Whenever I wanted to know what was actually happening, I turned off the television and went to the Boston Globe. Maybe they had either better sources or better rules, but the Globe got most everything right and avoided most of what was wrong.
Few others devoting 24-7 coverage to this gripping story can say that. And that should make all of us concerned.