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Fast and too furious?

In the weeks following the tragic Boston bombings, the American public has had time to reflect on the mainstream media’s coverage of the crisis.

Several news outlets have been criticized for their inaccurate reporting of critical details. Lucy Dalglish, Dean of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland argues that because in the current media climate there are a multitude of sources available to update the public during crisis, established news outlets have an even greater responsibility to “get the facts straight” in order to maintain credibility.

Boston Marathon runner Ken Thomson, of Alpharetta, Ga, is interviewed by television reporters as he arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson airport after running in the Boston Marathon, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Atlanta. Photo: AP/ David Goldman

“As a journalist, you should always be mortified when you make a mistake,” she said.

The implications of inaccurate reporting have been well documented over the past few decades. Ken Burns’ most recent film, The Central Park 5, explores the lives of five African-American and Latino teenagers who were wrongly accused of rape. The accused spent close to a decade in prison and were publicly ostracized by the mainstream media.

Jami Floyd, a national television news correspondent, knows that journalists can also face severe repercussions when they report incorrect statements during breaking news coverage, especially when there are suspected criminals involved. For nearly 20 years she has been on the scene conducting crisis reporting.

“The Boston bombings triggered my memory of reporting during the 1996 attacks on the Olympic Games. Richard Jewell was a security guard on site in Atlanta and was initially heralded for his efforts in evacuating the area after the explosion,” she said.

“However, the police later listed him as a suspect and the mainstream media subsequently targeted Jewel as a prime person of interest. After enduring months of public ridicule and condemnation, the police found he had no connection to the bombing. Many years later Jewel filed a law suit against several major media outlets that wrongly accused him and he won a large settlement.”

Floyd argues that the temptation for reporters to neglect thorough fact-checking in the race to uncover breaking news has always been present in journalism. She remembers one story which fueled this temptation from her time covering the immediate aftermath of 9.11.

“We heard a story that a Marine had single-handedly rescued two Port Authority police officers that were trapped under the rubble for two days. We interviewed him, as well as the survivors in the hospital and had the story from the original sources. But we wanted to check these characters out; the story just didn’t seem plausible. Therefore, we withheld the package from the prime time slot and broadcast it later that night once we received all the necessary information.”

Peter Laufer, a journalist who also teaches at the University of Oregon, said the demand for to-the-minute news coverage during a crisis comes directly from news consumers who want near-immediate information.

“We are all susceptible to the technology that makes us feel as if we can know anything immediately and we can’t. We have to make decisions about what we need to know, when,” he said.

Laufer warns consumers to avoid the trap of following unfolding crimes and tragedies moment by moment. He is in the process of authoring the slow news manifesto, which advises “news junkies” to withdraw from the addiction to instantaneous information and appreciate news developed through thorough investigative journalism.

News outlets have increasingly used Twitter as a medium to update their respective audiences on breaking stories, but the desire to break news quickly can often get in the way of journalistic judgment. “My issue isn’t with Twitter or social media platforms themselves, but how they are used,” Laufer said.

Dean Dalglish tells her students that they should treat Twitter as they would any other news medium. “Use the same reporting tools and skepticism on a tweet that you would use on any story.” Floyd sees potential in Twitter being used as a newswire in the future — playing a similar role to the A.P. wire service.

Some journalists have shifted to a new model of breaking news coverage. Hillary Sargent, known as “Chart Girl”, has taken a holistic approach to informing her audience about complex breaking news stories. Her website features a series of flow charts which break down a chain of events and “cast of characters” that comprise our understanding of, for example, Tamerlan Tsarnev or the David Petreas scandal. In a phone interview she told Need to Know about her methodology to create charts.

“When a story breaks that really interests me, I’ll first research everything there is to know about the subject. My brain then naturally finds all the complex connections within the details of the story. Therefore, the final chart is a physical manifestation of what’s going on in my head.”

Sargent takes a somewhat comedic approach to her reporting, as exemplified in her chart of the media coverage of the Boston bombing case. However, she argued the accuracy and credibility of her charts are not compromised by her illustrations. Reuter’s journalist Jack Shaefer profiled Sargent’s work and in his article suggested that her “tiny dose of wit” opens up readers to arguments they may otherwise shirk from.

What’s your take on speed, accuracy and media? Can they co-exist? Do they?