Dear News Media: Want To Remain Relevant? Try A Little Sourcing

NY PostUpdated: Four months ago (almost to the day), I lamented the massive missteps committed by mainstream media in the Sandy Hook shooting.

Then, as now, misleading headlines are often unchanged. And anonymous sources dominate.

1. There is no Saudi national in custody (and never has been)

This inflammatory story from the NY Post continues to be the top story at Memeorandum:

“Authorities ID person of interest as Saudi national in marathon bombings, under guard at Boston hospital.” Posted: 4:28 PM Eastern, April 15, 2013; Last Updated: 9:14 PM, April 15, 2013.

The very brief (200 or so words) report provides NO sources by name (or by link).

Investigators have a suspect — a Saudi Arabian national — in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, The Post has learned.

NBC tweeted similar unsourced “news” at 5:30 pm:

And yet at a 6 pm press conference, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said, “Those reports are not true, there is no suspect in custody.” Talking Points Memo has several denials from a Boston Police spokesperson (also unnamed).

And local Boston Globe reporters elaborated (with more anonymous and third hand sourcing):

The person questioned in the hospital was a Saudi national, who was report­edly tackled and held by a ­bystander after he was seen running from near the scene of the explosion, said a law enforce­ment source who spoke with someone involved in the FBI’s investigation. The Saudi man, believed to be a university student in Boston, is cooperating with the FBI and told agents that he was not involved in the explosions, and that he ran only because he was frightened. Investigators did not characterize the man as a suspect. No one had been arrested or charged as of late Monday night.

At 6:39 pm Eastern, the LA Times reported (more anonymous sourcing, emphasis added):

A federal law enforcement official said authorities were questioning a Saudi national who was taken to a Boston hospital with injuries. The person was not identified as a suspect.

Later, in a story timestamped 8:07 pm Eastern, CBS also asserted that a Saudi national was “in custody”. And like everyone else, with no named source.

Enough already. From the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics:

Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

It’s a rumor if there is no named source.

It’s worse than a rumor if the police chief — the only person speaking on the record — denies the claim.

It’s a breach of professional ethics. For what? A few retweets and click-throughs on the web? Pennies.

And it encourages crap like this: Petition: Waterboard the Boston Marathon Suspect.

To everyone who has spread this tale, often with some comment about a male Saudi national “running away” — I urge you to watch this video from the Boston Globe. Yes, people were running away! That is the normal fight-or-flight response kicking in. Brave first responders “run to” because that’s how they are trained (and wired?).

There are two things traditional media need to do. One: timestamp your stories in a breaking/developing news situation like this one, even if your content management system doesn’t do it for you. Two: name your sources or make it clear that you are trafficking in rumor.

And here’s a tip for readers: go local. Just say no to CNN and FOX and the screaming cable talking heads. You’ve got the internet. Get the story from the source.

3:23 am Pacific
Follow me (@kegill) on Twitter

Update : 01:03 pm Pacific

2. How many devices were there? Only 2, not 7

In the last graph of a long update on Tuesday, the NY Times notes:

On Tuesday morning officials said that the only explosive devices found were the ones that exploded at the marathon — clarifying conflicting statements that were given Monday in the chaotic aftermath of the blast, when some law-enforcement officials had said that other devices were found. “There were no unexploded devices found,” Gov. Deval Patrick said Tuesday morning.

Media reports of multiple (unexploded) bombs were rampant yesterday.

The NY Times had reported that an anonymous LEO said that two unexploded devices had been found. But the reporters also noted that there were “conflicting reports.”

3. And about that “bomb” at the JFK Library? Non-existent.

Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis noted in a press conference Monday that information about the JFK Library could be “premature.”

See any restraint on the part of reporters? (Note: more anonymous sources.)

Piers Morgan deleted his tweet, which had been retweeted more than 4,000 times:
piers morgan tweet

And after an official tweet from the Boston PD (per Topsy, 23 hours ago, as of this writing):

When we get to the other side of this story, will ANY of the anonymous sources have been proved accurate? Help me keep a tally.

Edited to aid reading by adding sub-heads and deleting duplicate tweets.