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.

         

31 Comments

  1. Spot on, Kathy. Even NPR played these games (their “On Point” show, based in Boston, was full of baseless speculation akin to Fox News). You’d think they’d learn after other major events like Sandy Hook, but no, they don’t.

  2. Thanks Kathy, your post should be required reading for all who listen to today’s “news”. If only people would bother to inform their opinions with facts!

    Barky, “On Point” is a discussion call in show, it isn’t a news program like CNN or FOX nor does it pretend to be. Btw, it’s an excellent program and is on a higher level than typical call in radio. That said, people love to speculate and will do so in any discussion.

  3. Some good observations by Kathy Gill. I imagine part of the problem is the seal to be the first with the story and outdo other News outlets.

    I would think that a simple fix for such inaccurate and unsourced reporting, would be to add something like–Unconfirmed sources say…. But of course the scramble to quickly gather the facts, often betrays such professional caution.

    One good thing, is that our news Sources are constantly revising their accounts of any story like this as it unfolds, so that eventually, the real story is made available to the public.

  4. The problem is that some programs thrive on sensation and speculation in order to maintain a viewership. Waiting for facts to come in isn’t sexy. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Of course it’s irresponsible but it also works, mainly because so many viewers will believe anything they see or read, especially if it conforms to their preconceptions.

  5. MSM news doesn’t care, this Saudis story get ratings. Never mind they ruined Richard Jewell’s life and made him the Atlanta Olympics Bomber.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Jewell
    I wonder how many times Fox will run with this story.

  6. In all our news reports, broadcasts, and even here in our posts and comments here and elsewhere, we reveal our habit of believing that a bunch of “theys” are responsible for the violence. Whether it’s Saudi suspects or our own media, we always seem to have a “they” to blame.

    But it’s us. We actually pay money to our media, encouraging them to delight and outrage us even as they reinforce our idea of who we are. We’d like to think a *”THEY!”* shoots small children and/or plants bombs in crowded places. Whether “they” are actually (if seldom) foreign perps or they’re home-grown weaponized and militarized right-wing fanatics, we usually manage to keep “them” at arms’-length from the rest of us. But usually “they” are just more of the neighbors in the neighborhood we’ve created.

    The media just do their job of egging us on in our delusions. We pay them to do so.

    Once we bring America back home and start to comprehend what we’ve made of her,maybe we’ll find a way of facing — and fixing — ourselves.

  7. PW, you got the “they” part right, and they do it too often.

  8. [blockquote]Barky, “On Point” is a discussion call in show, it isn’t a news program like CNN or FOX nor does it pretend to be. Btw, it’s an excellent program and is on a higher level than typical call in radio. That said, people love to speculate and will do so in any discussion.[/blockquote]

    To be clear, it was not the callers who raised my ire, it was his two guests. I listen to that show all the time and found myself disgusted with their utter baseless speculation.

    I was also disgusted with my local NPR station, WNPR, who decided to devote an hour to “human interest” stuff instead of actual reporting. That was during the prime-time news slot when All Things Considered is aired: they had their feel-good show host listening to callers. I have no problem with those types of shows, they serve their purpose, but not during the prime-time newscast on the day of a developing tragedy.

  9. I usually find listening to On Point time well spent, of course it won’t please everyone all the time, nor does it please me all the time. And while it isn’t a program designed to report the news, as FOX and CNN are (supposedly), it generally rises to a higher standard.

    Well said PW. Viewers are hardly off the hook when they settle for (and pay for) substandard programming.

  10. Erik Rush’s Twitter shortly after yesterday’s bombing declared of Muslims:

    “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.”

    Kathy what would you call something like that from a news commentator?

    Kerry stated recently that students from other countries are frightened to come to the U.S. because of guns, i feel great sadness for innocent students from other countries .

  11. Excellent post Kathy, a remedial training course in Journalism 101 would seem to be in order. Its one thing to have a couple of sensationalist sources jumping the gun, but when its every major news outlet you really just gotta wonder.

  12. Thanks, everyone. As you can tell from the timestamp, I had my usual “can’t sleep” response to tragedy.

    And yes, adding the word “unconfirmed” to “sources” (plural) would ease my heartburn a little. It’s a bit shocking how many stories were 100% anonymous sources.

    OrdinarySparrow — I found the entire series of tweets from Erik Rush — someone I’d not heard of before yesterday — to be beyond the pale. But there’s money — a LOT of money — to be made in stirring up the masses. I don’t doubt Erik’s claim that every “flame” tweet at him generates 100 new followers. But let’s be clear. He is NOT a journalist. Call him a columnist but don’t call him a journalist. The terms are not, IMO, interchangeable. (Mine is a minority viewpoint.)

    “Erik Rush is a contributor of social commentary to numerous print and online publications. Born in New York City in 1961, from 1975 to 1986, he worked as a studio, club, and stage musician and in biomedical research. In 1986, Erik relocated to the Southwestern U.S.”
    http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/rush

    And in a later tweet – maybe after he deleted the one about killing all the Muslims – he claimed “satire.” Yeah, right.

    I don’t know how to stem the tide of tabloid/entertainment “journalism” — if you look at the UK, for example, you’ll see it’s big bucks. Hence the NYPost. PW – do you have any solutions?

  13. Thanks Kathy for the explanation on Eric, what i read he was a Fox commentator and i assume incorrectly that he had a journalist background…

  14. NYT Tuesday:

    But on Tuesday morning, one law enforcement official said investigators had determined that the man, who was hurt in a blast and was questioned at the hospital, was not involved in the attack.

    Sigh. More anonymous (single) sourcing. And the NYPost story still leads on Memorandum.

  15. Bill O’Reilly: During the late 1970s and 1980s, he worked as a news reporter for various local television stations in the United States and eventually for CBS News and ABC News. From 1989 to 1995, he was anchor of the entertainment news program Inside Edition. O’Reilly returned to school in 1973 and earned a master of arts degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University. He also has an MPA from Harvard.

    Alexander Britton “Brit” Hume (born June 22, 1943) is a political commentator and television journalist.

    For twenty years he was a correspondent for ABC News, including as Chief White House Correspondent. He then spent ten years as the Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Fox News Channel and the anchor of Special Report with Brit Hume. Since 2008, he has been the senior political analyst for Fox News and a regular public-affairs panelist for the television program Fox News Sunday.

  16. dduck,

    I agree that Fox employs people having journalism degree’s but I think Kathy’s point is that they do not often practice the most responsible type of journalism, and have columnists that regularly spread fantastic tales involving conspiracy theories etc.

    There is also accurate News reporting in Fox’s stories, but just like someone with a medical degree may practice quack medicine, it is doubtful if Fox’s commenters and journalists value adhering to high journalistic standards. At least that is what I see.

  17. petew, just answering the question for the sake of accuracy so prized by people on the left.

    And, a mention of MSNBC in the same vein would be nice.

  18. Be nice, Duck. Several folks at MSNBC have GED’s and several others are working on theirs. But, what the wundervolk at FOX and MSNBC all have in common is the unending love of the sound of their own voices and the aggravating habit of interrupting anyone who disagrees with them…and sometimes interrupting those who agree with them because they are convinced that they can say it better.

  19. LOL, Yup.

  20. Ah – I forgot that the internet ate my comment!

    DD – as I said in Tuesday’s post — there is a different between news reports citing anonymous sources as “fact” and cable pundits blowing a lot of hot air. My primary criticism was at the NY Post, although it wasn’t the only criticism.

    I don’t understand why people watch/listen to talk shows anyway, unless they simply want to have their world views massaged. They don’t *report* anything and at least half of what they say (all of them) isn’t grounded in substance.

  21. unless they simply want to have their world views massaged

    Therein lies the problem.

  22. In days of yore village idiots were a productive asset to the community.

    They sat at the edge of town and directed newcomers to the livery or general store or the mayor’s office… Newcomers and village idiots tend to be drawn to one other, they have a lot in common.

    Unfortunately technology has made the position of ‘village idiot’ available to anyone with a computer and a modem… The realization of this makes me want to turn this damn thing off and go out to the edge of town to wait for strangers.

  23. KG, I don’t understand why people watch/listen to talk shows anyway, unless they simply want to have their world views massaged. They don’t *report* anything and at least half of what they say (all of them) isn’t grounded in substance.”

    Sounds like this blog, and you are a component massager in this “entertainment”,
    unless you feel you *report*.
    BTW: I was merely answering your snark ( do any of the FOX commentators have a journo background?).

  24. I confess, when someone states they believe most of TMV to be unsubstantial massaging, yet continue coming here day after day it leaves me scratching my head wondering what the payoff is.

    I appreciate Kathy Gill’s contributions and find them to be relevant, perceptive, and useful. I hardly see her as “a component massager in this “entertainment”, a comment I find to be rather offensive.

  25. Z, I am merely throwing back (sort of like what monkeys at the zoo do) the derision KG stated about talk shows (They don’t *report* anything and at least half of what they say (all of them) isn’t grounded in substance.”), which I and others enjoy, as do I enjoy the different viewpoints here on TMV. Indeed, I am defending both kinds of “entertainment” and apologize for the perception of “inaccuracy and offensiveness”.)
    The idea that there is only certain types of “news reports” smacks of elitism to me. Now I will go and eat some unhealthy food if you don’t mind. :-)

  26. It’s not unusual for comments to run into the limitations of the print medium, for example, we don’t have the benefit of nuance, inflection, facial expressions, etc. Also posters may assume the readers will understand the spirit they are feeling when they type a post, merely because they do. So I appreciate your willingness to explain… even if I don’t agree. ;-)

  27. Z, as long as you don’t alert the media police that I watch the non-reporters, read the editorial pages of the NYT and WSJ, and read the letters to the editor, all is well. :-) :-(, etc.

  28. Fair nuff. Mum’s the word.

  29. dduck,

    A mention of MSNBC would have been nice if I had been interested in critiquing all news outlets, but my intention was specifically to express my lack of faith in FOX.

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