The motto “report now and apologize later” is one with which I disagree. Yet in today’s 24-hour constantly breaking news cycle, speed of news delivery seems to trump accuracy. In the case of the Boston Marathon Bombing, the pressure to be the first news agency to report on a suspect led Fox News and CNN to air reports that a suspect was in custody. This pressure also caused many media outlets, including Fox and CNN, to violate several of SPJ’s Code of Ethics (2014). The first bullet point within SPJ’s list states that “Journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work and verify information before releasing it.” Another SPJ code that seems to have all but been abandoned is the statement that “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” Fox and CNN, despite recently having reported inaccuracies on a breaking news story only months prior, appear to have disregarded accuracy for the sake of speed.
From the quotes in Bill Carter’s April 17, 2013 New York Times article, neither CNN nor Fox’s retraction statements appear to have accepted any responsibility for their mistakes – instead placing blame on the fact that their trusted sources had been incorrect. According to Carter’s article, CNN stated that they had reported on what they believed were three accurate sources of information. Fox’s Megyn Kelly made a similar statement about the accuracy of their source’s confirmations. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2010) point out some interesting observations about the tendencies of news media with regard to addressing report inaccuracies. In keeping with the nature of the statements issued by Fox and CNN, Kovach and Rosenstiel believe that news agencies typically issue retractions only when the misinformation is “black and white” (p. 118). In other words, when a news outlet makes a mistake about something that can only be right or wrong, they are most likely to issue a correction. My belief is that even though the sources used by the networks were mistaken, the burden of accurate reporting still falls on the network and anchor releasing the story. Audiences may never know what attempts, if any, were made to verify the information.
In his article, Carter quotes a former network news correspondent who teaches journalism,
“I fear we have permanently entered the Age of the Retraction… The rush to be first has so thoroughly swallowed up the principle of being right and first that it seems a little egg on the face is now deemed worth the risk (2013).
I find it alarming to think that news outlets, knowing from experience how audiences take to retractions, may be taking advantage of the public’s lack of demand for accountability – let alone accuracy. It is as if so long as the news media issues a correctional statement somewhere down the road, they are free to boost ratings by being the first to report, regardless of accuracy.
Our relationship to the news media must be taken into account when examining the reporting of inaccurate information. Audiences determine ratings and, in a large part, the success of news media agencies.
Carter, B. (2013, April 17). The F.B.I. Criticizes the News Media After Several Mistaken Reports of an Arrest. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/business/media/fbi-criticizes-false-reports-of-a-bombing-arrest.html?_r=0
Kovach, Bill and Rosenstiel, Tom. (2010). Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload. New York: Bloomsbury, USA.
Society of Professional Journalists. (2014). SPJ code of ethics. Retrieved from: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp