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Journalism 101: When Getting it First Trumps Getting it Right

It had already been a hectic, headlong week when a reporter I like, respect and admire made a big mistake. In the rush to get the news fast and first, he got it wrong.

I’m not interested in beating up on him, because it could have easily been me. We all want instant solace. When the president declared to the mourners gathered at Boston’s Cathedral of The Holy Cross: “Yes, we will find you. And, yes, you will face justice.” We got that. That’s how the story ends, right? The bad guys get caught.

But the imperative to get to the neat “Law and Order” ending sometimes conflicts with the imperatives of the news business. So this week, when reporters tripped over each other to figure things out, many overreached.

Wednesday was the worst of it. A suspect was arrested, we were told. He was in custody, we were assured. And the only description of the suspect was that he was male and “dark-skinned.”

I tweeted this: “Disturbing that it’s OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect only as ‘a dark-skinned individual.'”

And the hounds of Twitter hell were unleashed.

Conspiracy theorists on the left applauded me for what they saw as right-minded commentary on race in America. Conspiracy theorists on the right denounced me for what they saw as wrongheaded commentary on race in America. Both were wrong.

I was talking about journalism. This reporter, and several others who disseminated bad information throughout the day, broke clear rules by repeating information from a single source that lacked a second confirmation. They eventually came up with other sources, but only eventually.

My friend’s error was compounded when he added useless detail. Having dark skin is not a useful descriptor in a multiracial society. It only stirs fear and free-floating suspicion unless yoked to something more specific — like hair color or clothing or other more telling detail.

As it happens, the night before, I’d watched the PBS broadcast of Ken and Sarah Burns’ excellent film “The Central Park Five,” which reconstructed the troubling events surrounding the arrest of five black and Latino teenagers who were charged with the 1989 rape and savage beating of a young, white woman jogger.

The young men were innocent, but were railroaded into confessions and wrongfully convicted. They spent years behind bars before being exonerated when the real perpetrator confessed. They were victims, in the end, of a rush to justice forced on them by the police, the prosecutors, the mayor and even by Donald Trump, who paid for a newspaper ad calling for the death penalty. The shocked city was demanding that someone pay a price.

But the news media, too, played a role in what turned out to be a sad miscarriage of justice. The city’s tabloids and television stations play a prominent role in the documentary, gobbling up the story invented for them by the authorities and questioning the outcome only years later.

(Sadly, it was a New York tabloid that compounded this week’s rush to judgment by publishing photos of two supposed suspects on its cover with the headline “Bag Men.” Neither was the suspect.)

I’m not saying reporters should have seen through the smokescreen instantly. It’s harder than it looks to challenge official information when it comes from investigators who by definition ought to know more than you do.

But getting more than one source (and taking a deep breath before reporting the information) is designed to reduce the potential for error. And it minimizes the possibility that, say, the city police may want information circulated that the FBI does not.

Eventually someone will be arrested and charged. Maybe that person will even be a dark-skinned male. But getting it right eventually should not ever be an option.

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