CNN’s Gaffe on Marathon Bombing Suspects Has Lessons for Media Large and Small

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April 22, 2013; Foreign Policy

The deluge of inaccurate coverage of the Boston marathon bombing suspects led the venerable CNN network into embarrassing mistakes. Fox was right there with CNN, but we don’t necessarily look to Fox for sober reporting, particularly as Fox was hammering away from nearly the get-go at the suspects’ potential connections to Chechen terror organizations and Chechen terrorists’ connections to Al Qaeda. CNN, on the other hand, is—or was—thought of as thoughtful, balanced, and sober, but that reputation has become increasingly tattered. But, without defending CNN, we ask whether what happened to CNN isn’t actually part of the news zeitgeist, leaving not just CNN and its mega-network peers at risk of error and hyperbole, but smaller, local operations and entities that try to cover the news of the nonprofit sector, like this venue.

The much-discussed CNN faux pas was, after the first bombing suspect had been killed, its erroneous reporting that the second had been arrested. It seems that CNN was reporting information from seemingly reliable but anonymous sources. As printed in this article in Foreign Policy, the explanation from CNN was the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle. That may have been true in that instance, but we think the pressures on news coverage aren’t just CNN vs. FOX vs. MSNBC 24/7, but the empowerment of everyone with a cell phone and a Twitter or Reddit account to be a reporter. The line between “professional journalist” and “citizen journalist” is rapidly disintegrating due to the multiplicity of venues for reportage and the speed afforded to reporting without the intercession of editors and fact-checkers.

We watched the marathon bombing news coverage as much on Twitter as on television and saw how much faster people were on Twitter to find the Tsarnaevs’ Twitter and Facebook postings and generate multiple pictures of the suspects before the networks did. Twitter feeds had information about the younger Tsarnaev’s weed-smoking habits at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth long before a CNN reporter uttered, “weed.” In fact, several outlets discovered the older brother’s Facebook account and the younger brother’s Twitter account, leading to chilling 140-character-or-less insights into the latter’s beliefs and motivations.

On the other hand, the frenetic stuff on Twitter and Reddit got out of control at various times—and not just from intentionally misreported stuff like the Twitter user who renamed himself after the younger Tsarnaev, a stunt with a rationale that escapes us. There was a deluge of coverage that simply went off the charts about other suspects, multiple arrests, connections to the Caucasus Emirate, and Islamic terrorists in general that was both wrong and hyperbolic.

There are lessons in all of this for news outlets of all kinds—not just CNN, but for news providers, too.

  1. We all have to do more reporting of facts that are inherently verifiable. That isn’t to argue somehow that bias can be scrubbed away. Interpretation is actually useful and important. But get the facts in there, make sure that even if segments of your readership don’t agree with your reporting, let the facts stand so that hopefully, despite the ideological overstatements of so many readers, they will think about the meaning of the reported facts.
  2. News outlets have to take the time to check their information and vet their information sources. CNN and other networks have legions of people to put to this task, compared to tiny nonprofit news outlets, but it is critical to do. That still doesn’t prevent mistakes from being made, but it does reduce the incidence and strengthen the ability of news outlets to withstand assaults from the subjects of news who beat up on small outlets, relying on their limited staff resources to prevent them from reporting out of fear of SLAPP suits.
  3. At the same time, “citizen journalists” have to think of themselves as journalists and apply some caution and fact checking to what they see and report. In the rush to be first, to always be the fastest, accuracy, details, and nuance get compromised. If, as we believe, nonprofit citizens should be encouraged to tell their stories, they should do so with the application of some of the journalistic considerations that they would hope are in use by CNN and its competitors to make sure the stories that are being told are as accurate as possible.
  4. In the nonprofit sector, where the stories—no offense to any of us—are hardly as breathtaking as stories about the manhunt for terror bombing suspects, nonprofit news sources have to begin to be more reliable, more open, and less anonymous. In the sector’s overwhelming predilection for stage-managing news through message control and public relations, with warnings about anonymity regarding topics that hardly warrant an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, we contribute to a news process that relies on anonymous sources and uses unreliable information dressed up as unverifiable facts. How many stage-managed events have we had to endure that guaranteed anonymity but encouraged adulatory crowdsourcing due to participant pre-selection? In an emerging world of citizen journalism, if we are to think of ourselves as potential journalists, we should also think of ourselves as news sources and function more responsibly and transparently.

For those of us from Boston (as is this writer, born and raised) or based in Boston (as is Nonprofit Quarterly), the Marathon bombings were a terrible tragedy, brought home to us because we all knew from personal experience the places on Boylston Street in Boston, Norfolk Street in Cambridge, the MIT campus, and the various locales in Watertown where the events of the week ensued. The inclination was to start writing from the moment that we saw the smoke rising from the Marathon finish line, but even then, as the news was reporting—erroneously—about a third bomb at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, we wouldn’t have had any facts to contribute to the public’s understanding of the breaking story. Journalists, professional and citizen alike, should be reminded by the past week’s stories that reporting, even op-ed editorializing, requires empirical, vetted information at its core. Otherwise, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, our readers, and the stories we are trying to convey.—Rick Cohen

  • Charlie Bernstein

    Looking to CNN for “sober reporting” is like looking to Mel Gibson for minyan.

  • Altagracia

    Rick, can you give us an example of what you are referring to here: “How many stage-managed events have we had to endure that guaranteed anonymity but encouraged adulatory crowdsourcing due to participant pre-selection?”

  • Susan Speers

    Well written, Rick. Thank you. Helpful to remember that in this crowd-sourcing age, we are, potentially, both consumers/viewers and citizen journalists. Those gatekeepers actually on air need to maintain their perspective and standards even in crisis situations. The sports photographers who immediately turned to cover the tragedy are a fine example of what happens when professionals are at their best.

  • Betty Gay

    Thank you for stating the sterling requirements for good reporting, which has tarnished considerably since my childhood. That’s when it was the nightly news on just three networks. At first I also thought Fox was the prejudiced network, but as I started listening and reading from several sources, I was very disappointed to discover editorializing in all the networks during what they called news rather than editorializing. It’s easier to hear the bias when the story is the opposite of your view. Even you are showing bias here by criticizing Fox News for quickly broadcasting the Chechnian background of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Fox got it right!

    I may not always like the tone of voice used by a couple of the Fox broadcasters, but I have heard with my own ears some of the slander on stations of opposing views. When some of them didn’t like what women broadcasters said, they indulged in name-calling as nasty as you can get away with on live TV.

    Charles Krauthammer and Chris Wallace are hardly the only highly intelligent contributors on Fox News.

    I wish they could get as upset over actual world events. Sadly, often Fox is providing information that the other networks refuse to cover. Like why is there a gag order on all the Americans who WERE rescued from the State Department offices under attack in Libya? Did you know that the Navy Seals who died had rescued several of those Americans? And what happened to the military commanders who DID have troops ready to intervene, only to be told to stand down. (Disobeying a direct order risks court martial and losing their retirements for life.) How many, if any, major networks revealed the pleas from our now-martyred Ambassador for increased security, which resulted in getting punished with decreased security?

    You are right. There is a huge need for unbiased, fact-checked news.

  • Betty Gay

    Correction to just-submitted comment: “I wish they could get as upset over actual world events,” where ‘they’ refers to the editorialists who lambasted women commentators when they didn’t like the women’s views.

  • Gloria

    i don’t think all SNS users should feel the obligation of being “citizen journalists”. i think it’s the journalists’ job to distinguish whether the users of SNS is telling them the truth or not – or in other words, whether the users are updating emotional status or not. SNS is technically not for accurately reporting what is happening around the users, but a place for expressing your feelings. I don’t think everyone has to be “citizen journalists”. The PROFESSIONAL journalists should be more careful when choosing what to report, in terms of the reliability of the updated statuses.