The most useful and most dangerous aspects of journalism in our digital society were simultaneously on display last week as the television news version of the Boston bombing atrocity unfolded live and, too often, irresponsibly.
Strewn in the wake of the blanket coverage were principles that for decades have been safeguards of reportorial accuracy and the public good that flows from it.
We must be grateful, of course, for the presence in perilous circumstances of independent institutions and people animated by the need to learn what is going on and tell us about it. Without them, we would be at the mercy of official sources animated by different impulses who can shape what we learn to suit their needs, both self-serving and public-spirited.
But last week we too frequently saw the journalistic imperative of accuracy overwhelmed by the false imperative of immediacy. Broadcast journalism always has been challenged by the fine balance between accuracy and immediacy, but in the past decade communication has grown multiple appendages that complicate the matter of simple knowing.
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Thus we have CNN reporters, live on camera, hearing a producer talking in one ear, the anchor talking in the other, and with one hand manipulating an iPhone or iPad and the other a microphone, who are supposed to make solid but instantaneous judgments about what they know, how they know it and how, exactly, to tell it to the entire world. People just are not that good, nor will they ever be. On-air reporters become mere conduits for an undifferentiated fraction of the flood of information flowing over and around them.
As a result, false word of an arrest is broadcast, as is an erroneous report of a third bomb, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and dozens of other unsubstantiated “facts.”
Just as irresponsible were speculations about motives, ethnicities, injuries and theories of the case, many of them preceded by a cynical prophylactic, “Speculation is always risky … but” or “We don’t like to speculate … nevertheless,” followed, of course, by immediate relaying of the speculation.
Also taking a pummeling was the false notion that multiple anonymous sources are better than a single anonymous source. The city was flooded with “officials” and “authorities,” most of whom could know only bits of the truth and all of whom were subject to the flood of chatter on multiple channels. Thus second, third and fourth “confirmations” of bad information were beguilingly easy to acquire if one didn’t insist on identifying the sources.
But, broadcast and Internet apologists insist, that’s the unavoidable risk of live news-telling, and as soon as we discover that something is wrong, we correct it. That’s a practical and ethical cop-out: practical in that you cannot be sure whether the viewer of three minutes ago is still there or is busily retransmitting the bad information; ethical because it rationalizes away accountability.
Reporting breaking news has always been hazardous and messy, so every reporter needs an editor. When no mediating influence, no questioning, cooler head, stands between the collection of news and its dissemination, scary things can happen.
There’s no evidence yet that last week’s stampede to be first caused lasting harm. Except, of course, to the reputation of the profession of journalism. Nothing is more threatening to press freedom – and the democracy it sustains – than greed and excessive ambition.