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PBS Ombudsman

Sliding Down Journalism's Slippery Slope

Every course for beginners in journalism starts out with something called "The Five Ws." They stand for: Who, What, When, Where and Why. They are at the root of factual, investigative pursuits — not just in journalism. The formulation dates back several centuries but was memorialized in popular usage by a Rudyard Kipling poem in the early 1900s. Kipling, helpfully, added a "How" to the mix, as in "How did it happen?"

The contemporary journalistic scene is far too fast and complicated for the "Five Ws and one H" to be the fundamental yardstick by which we measure news stories. News unfolds gradually and stories are rarely complete. Those old guideposts still have relevance, however, but I would add a new definition for the "How" question. It would be: How do you know that? It is a question that producers and editors should routinely press hard upon reporters.

Not About PBS

This column is about some of the errant reporting that was on display during the early stages of the Boston Marathon bombing story. This has nothing to do with PBS. So I am taking advantage of this space to offer some of my own thoughts about how journalistic missteps, particularly in those early stages, are the ones that stick in the public mind even when, as was also the case in Boston, the press did quite a good job of reporting as the story developed further.

The PBS NewsHour did not engage in furthering what turned out to be some false news reports on some cable networks and one newspaper, especially. And a segment by correspondent Jeffrey Brown on Wednesday evening, that included a lengthy interview with WBUR Public Radio reporter David Boeri in Boston, was very helpful in both cautioning viewers about unconfirmed reports elsewhere and in explaining the very real confusion that led to some of those reports.

The dramatic Friday night capture of the remaining suspected bomber took place after the regular April 19 edition of NewsHour had gone off the air in the East. But the program made a worthy effort to update its broadcast with those details in time for its West Coast audience.

Nevertheless, PBS is not a network, and it can't compete with broadcast and cable networks that can cancel scheduled programming and stay on the air with a dramatic, breaking and continuing news story for as long as it takes. And, as has been mentioned several times before in this space, PBS doesn't have a weekend news hour broadcast to pick up the pieces should news break-out inconveniently on a Friday night, Saturday or Sunday.

The Press on the Press

By now, there have been numerous pieces — in The Washington Post, New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, a blog on PBS by senior correspondent Gwen Ifill and in many other places — about the mistaken reports in the early stages of the bombing story.

The article that I thought was the best appeared online in Politico on April 18. It was by James Hohmann and was the first one that I saw that was on top of this issue right away, early in the unfolding drama in Boston while these mistakes were airing. It was headlined, "Media Shrug at Boston Blunders." It made several telling points.

Hohmann wrote: "The inaccurate report by CNN and other news organizations about an arrest in the Boston bombing case was arguably one of the most flagrant errors on a story of major national consequence in years. When the news organizations later corrected their mistakes, there seemed to be something missing — any big shows of contrition, or even a sense of the magnitude of the error. It fell to Twitter and the merciless mockery of Jon Stewart, who devoted much of 'The Daily Show' to skewering CNN's John King, to call out the media for their failures . . .

"As of Thursday afternoon, Fox News, CNN, the AP and The Boston Globe had still not apologized for incorrect reporting more than 24 hours earlier. The AP said Wednesday that a suspect was in custody. King and then Fox said an arrest had been made. The Globe tweeted that a suspect was being taken to the courthouse . . .

"The New York Post, which reported Monday that 12 died in the explosions — rather than three — published a photo of two 'bag men' on the cover of Thursday's paper. Then the Post reported on its web site at 1:43 p.m. that both men had been cleared."

The next day, The Washington Post's Paul Farhi weighed in with another thoughtful article capturing today's lightning-fast world of media headlined, "Mistakes in news reporting happen, but do they matter?"

Here's how it began: "Over and over this week, the news media got it wrong. A suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings had been arrested; in fact, one hadn't. A Saudi national was in custody in the attacks; in fact, there was no such individual. The two actual suspects had ties to jihadist groups; well, that wasn't clear at the time, either. Mistakes happen often in reporting big, complicated, fast-moving stories like the one in Boston. The question is: How much does erroneous reporting matter these days? One answer: perhaps less than ever."

My Thoughts

Mistakes, of course, do indeed happen often in big, fast-moving stories. It is almost inevitable despite hard work and good intentions. CNN clearly is seriously devoted to covering the news. John King is an experienced and well-regarded journalist. The Boston Globe did a fine job despite an early slip as did The Associated Press. On the other hand, there are no words to describe the performance of The New York Post.

Yet as the pace of reporting has advanced to non-stop, and as Twitter and popular social news websites such as Reddit introduce limitless, unfiltered, crowd-sourced observation and speculation, these mistakes seem to be happening more frequently and are more memorable. And they further increase public distrust in the media, which is already at record heights.

'Heal Thyself'

The issue here, it seems to me, is not just to apologize publicly and correct the record, or to think that the speed and breadth of the watching online world will assure that mistakes are quickly spotted and corrected, at least for some audiences, and that the audience will just as quickly move on. Rather, it is to go back to those fundamentals, particularly the "How" — as in editors and producers who get the big bucks to be gatekeepers and are supposed to look out for the public's interest and their own news organization's credibility — in pressing reporters on "How do you know that?"

Mistakes will never be eliminated, even with the most conscientious reporters and editors. Editors need to trust their reporters and often also have to make decisions on the fly. But corrections and apologies are simply not enough. News organizations need to go back over their performance and fix what is broken inside or they will keep making high-profile mistakes and stay on a slippery slope that further degrades their organizations and, more importantly, a democracy's need for a free and credible press.

I watched a lot of NBC throughout the Boston bombing story and thought they did an excellent job, cautious but informative and clearly on top of the story.

CNN, on the other hand, the network millions of people tend to switch to when something big happens, got hammered. And that came on top of blistering criticism just last June of the network's hasty and false initial misreading of the Supreme Court's decision on Obamacare. Others (Fox News) made a similar mistake. But, as the Times' media writer David Carr wrote yesterday, "when big news breaks, we instinctively look to CNN. We want CNN to be good, to be worthy of the moment."

Two years ago, NPR reported as breaking news that Rep. Gabrielle Gifford had died at the hands of a gunman in Arizona. Others joined in reporting that incorrectly. In the more recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., the Politico story reminds us that "several media organizations misidentified the gunman's brother as the shooter, wrongly claimed that their mother worked at the school and speculated that the principal buzzed the killer in because she recognized him. As with the Boston blasts, this information came from misinformed and unnamed law enforcement sources."

Politico also reminds us that last July, ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross "suggested that the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., movie shootings may have had connections to the tea party. Ross based this on a web posting by someone else with the same name who lived in the same city."

Other cases have been cited, including the speculative reporting surrounding who the perpetrators were in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the well-remembered case the following year surrounding the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and the subsequent years of press focus on a security guard named Richard Jewell who, it turned out, had nothing to do with it. Then, of course, there was some of the reporting surrounding the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

There are other episodes as well. And there are without question some mitigating factors in most of these cases. Nevertheless, my point is that, given the speed and fracturing of real news and false news in today's environment, this is not only going to keep happening but will get worse. It is the screw-ups that take place before the real facts emerge that are remembered, that hurt innocent people and sometimes groups of people. And that early reporting is when the chips are down for a news organization. That is the record that is recalled when events turn out the other way. News organizations must investigate themselves, with no punches pulled, and make sure that they are upholding their own editorial standards and the privilege of informing the public as journalism finds itself in a tougher and tougher neighborhood.

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