Questionable information from sources and a rush to be first contributed to a flurry of erroneous media reports Wednesday of an arrest in the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. CNN, the Associated Press, FoxNews.com and the Boston Globe were forced to backtrack on reports – all of which cited anonymous law enforcement sources – that an arrest had been made in the attack Monday that injured almost 200 and killed three including an 8-year-old boy.
Meanwhile, the FBI took the unusual step of issuing a statement correcting the media and asking that it show restraint in its reporting and verify information "through appropriate official channels."
Veterans of the TV news trenches say that while sources can often offer incomplete, misleading or bad information, the onus is on the news organization to properly vet that information.
“There’s nothing worse than having to backtrack on your story,” says one veteran producer. “Because then you get a reputation for being wrong."
Such mistakes are nothing new in journalism, of course. The 2000 presidential election, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City attack remain watershed moments for the news media in which serious mistakes were made in how they were covered. But the age of the instant Twitter update may have have ramped up the rate of error with a string of faulty reports during more recent breaking news situations.
Multiple media outlets misidentified the shooter in the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre and also said the suspect's mother was killed at the school. CNN and Fox News misreported the Supreme Court’s January decision on President Obama’s health care overhaul. ABC News correspondent Brian Ross erroneously linked Aurora, Colo., shooter James Holmes to the Tea Party. And early reports about the Jan. 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shooting involving U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said the congresswoman had died.
But the stakes now are particularly high for CNN as the struggling cable news network attempts to reinvent itself under new chief Jeff Zucker.
“The game plan for CNN is to wait until a major story happens and then strut their stuff,” says independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “Anybody can make a mistake. But when CNN makes a mistake it matters more to them because this is the one time that they can get eyeballs to sample them.”
CNN also came under significant criticism for its reporting that the suspect is a "dark skinned male." CBS News reported that the possible suspect is a white man wearing a "white or off-white baseball cap backwards."
In a statement, CNN defended its decision to report that an arrest had been made. “CNN had three credible sources on both local and federal levels,” said a network spokesperson. “Based on this information we reported our findings. As soon as our sources came to us with new information we adjusted our reporting."
The Globe reported that the (false) reports of a suspect in custody sent "spectators, photographers and reporters" flocking to "the federal courthouse on the South Boston waterfront, expecting the suspect to be brought there for a court appearance."
NBC News' Pete Williams was an early dissenter in the erroneous Boston Marathon reports, insisting on MSNBC that no arrests had been made even as CNN was sticking by its original story, which earned him plaudits from network executives.
“There’s no second guessing with Pete Williams,” says MSNBC president Phil Griffin. “There have been other times when others have gotten ahead of themselves. We don’t do it until we get clearance from a guy that everyone in this building trusts. And that has helped us through a lot of things."
Williams also was among the reporters who correctly analyzed the Obamacare decision as other networks rushed to air with the findings from the dense report. And sources at ABC News say that the network’s black eye over the Aurora shooting has led to an abundance of caution in reporting breaking news stories. ABC News president Ben Sherwood has been cautioning producers and correspondents to be "extra vigilant in their reporting on this story," said one source.
Certainly during a quickly evolving breaking news story miscommunication can occur. In an effort to be transparent, CNN’s John King noted on the air that one of his law enforcement sources told him there was “significant blow back at the leaks.”
The AP, which reported that a suspect was in custody, also subsequently updated its story to say that the law enforcement official who briefed the wire service "stood by the information even after it was disputed."
The scope of the investigation, which involves state, local and federal lay enforcement also is likely contributing to the confusion. There were initial reports of five unexploded devices in the area. Multiple outlets reported that a "Saudi national" injured in the attacks was a suspect. The New York Post still had a story on its web site late Tuesday saying that 12 people had been killed. Three people were killed in the twin bombings.
Meanwhile, officials have postponed a news conference scheduled for 5 p.m. ET Wednesday while offering no update on when it might be rescheduled.