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National Media: Being First or Being Factual?

BOSTON, MA – APRIL 17: FBI crime scene investigators stand near an evidence marker on Boylston Street just past Berkeley Street near the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing April 17, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Investigators continue to work the scene of two bomb explosions at the finish line of the marathon that killed 3 people and injured over one hundred more. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Like many of you I felt a euphoric sigh of relief with the reporting of an arrest of a suspected bomber in Boston yesterday. CNN broke the story, followed by the Associated Press and Fox News. Mere moments later everyone was backtracking on the story and we’re left staring at the screen wondering, “Now who do we believe?”

News is a very competitive environment. We all want the latest and greatest. But shouldn’t getting it right trump reporting it wrong? It’s like a line of dominoes, once one credible resource breaks the news then everyone takes that at face value rather than doing their due diligence. The result is what we saw yesterday. There’s no ratings value in being wrong first.

Two Attacks Confuse the Media

Coupled with the Boston Marathon Bombing we get the news about the president and a couple of senators getting letters laced with Ricin. And the feeding frenzy starts all over again. Who, what, when, where and how — the public needs to know – but who do we trust? I guess the new rule of journalism is, report first then cross your fingers that you got the right info. But if you didn’t, not to worry, another wrong story is just around the corner to get you off the hook.

This Is Not The First Bombing With Bad Info

Many of you might remember the name Richard A. Jewell (Dec. 17, 1962 – Aug. 29, 2007), who was an off duty police officer working as a security guard during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Ga.

Jewell discovered a pipe bomb, alerted the police, and immediately helped clear the area of people before the bomb exploded. He was hailed as a hero by the media but later they learned that Jewell was one of several suspects being cleared by police in the course of their investigation. The feeding frenzy began. Reporters staked out Jewell’s house, and his families house and his friends, and any past employers.

Although Jewell was never officially charged with anything he was literally tried and convicted of the bombing in the media and his career and reputation were ruined. He was eventually exonerated of all charges and Eric Robert Rudolph was eventually arrested and charged with the bombing.

Jewell eventually filed several lawsuits against the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, NBC, CNN and more and won many of them. Ten years after the ordeal began, in 2006, Governor Sonny Perdue publicly thanked Jewell for his heroic action and for saving so many lives. Jewell died one year later at the age of 44.

Some Final Thoughts

I was part of the old KMMS afternoon show when the gas explosion occurred in downtown Bozeman. We all became quasi-reporters that day as everyone was trying to find out what happened and get the news out to frightened people. The studio was a revolving door of who’s who in Bozeman politics. The city manager, sheriff, county commissioners, the fire chief and many others made time to help get the best available info out to the concerned citizenry.

Our first thought was a terrorist attack due to its close proximity to the banks. But to everyone’s credit that worked in Bozeman media everyone waited to get the story right. No one worried about being first but everyone wanted to be right.

Davy Crockett said it best so long ago, “First make sure you’re right. Then go ahead.” Maybe the media should start wearing coonskin caps.

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