As media outlets return to their usual reporting schedules after the Boston Marathon bombings last week, reporters should reflect on their own coverage. Many mistakes were made, but they don't have to be made again.
Here are six things we learned about how to cover a national tragedy like the bombing from last week's violence in Boston.
1. Act more like Pete Williams.
Within days of the explosion, NBC justice correspondent Pete Williams was trending worldwide on Twitter because of his coverage of the Boston Marathon. Not only did Williams's reporting stick to narrow and stable beats, but he also hesitated to speculate or jump to any conclusions despite the rampant inclination of other reporters to do just that. As a result of his experience working in the Pentagon under then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in the late 1980s, Williams seems to understand how the government must handle sensitive information.
In a recent interview with PBS, Williams explained, "Governments have an understandable and legitimate need to keep some things secret. It’s not keeping it secret from the citizens, it’s that certain operations work better if they are confidential and secret."
2. Distinguish between a good lead and a bad lead.
The New York Post made several errors in its coverage of the Boston bombings (including initially reporting that 12 people had been killed in the blast and that authorities had a "Saudi national" in custody), but the newspaper's most egregious mistake was the front-page photo it ran on Friday, April 19 with the headline, "Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." The photo was not, in fact, of the late Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar. Instead, the image showed a 17-year-old high school athlete and his coach; the Moroccan student happened to be carrying a bag containing his gym clothes and sneakers.
In response to the inevitable and well-deserved criticism, the Post claimed that the image had been emailed to law enforcements agencies seeking further information and defended itself by saying that the newspaper never actually identified the men in the photo as suspects.
3. Exercise caution and restraint.
CNN, which was previously thought of as the go-to source for nonpartisan coverage of breaking news, got ahead of itself several times while reporting on the marathon tragedy.
On Wednesday, April 17, CNN wrongly reported that a suspect had been taken into custody but later claimed in defense that they had received this information from three credible sources on both local and federal levels. The Boston Globe, as well as several local Boston TV stations, also erroneously reported on Wednesday that an arrest had been made and a suspect was in custody.
In a written statement released on Wednesday afternoon, FBI Special Agent Greg Comcowich asked the media to exercise restraint: "Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate channels before reporting."
4. Beware of Twitter.
Twitter can be a great source of news and information, especially within the first shocking moments of an event. Through Twitter, firsthand accounts and evidence such as iPhone photos and sound bites can be circulated across the globe within mere minutes – remember the Twittersphere after Osama Bin Laden had been killed?
Nevertheless, Twitter also has the power and potential to spread unedited and unverified information, which is exactly what happened last Monday after the explosions at the Marathon. Several hours after the blast, Twitter reported that a Muslim man with shrapnel wounds was being guarded in a Boston hospital as a "person of interest" and that the explosion in the JFK library was connected to the blasts at the Marathon. Obviously, information from Twitter must be contextualized.
5. Focus on getting the story right, rather than getting the story first.
During such a huge news event, media outlets naturally want to break the story first. But rushing to be first, however, should not mean sacrificing accuracy. Conflicting reports confuse and upset the masses.
CNN has now lost a degree of credibility and respect from the public, especially when considered in addition to its wrongful reporting on the Supreme Court decision regarding President Obama’s health care reform law in June. All of this may have enduring repercussions for the network’s cable ratings. And apologetic retractions do not excuse failing to inform the public in real time.
6. Irresponsible reporting has consequences.
Last Wednesday, in reaction to the plethora of media meltdowns that reported a suspect had been detained, the FBI announced that unverified reporting could have “unintended consequences” for its investigation. Spreading misinformation across the country could complicate or even prevent our government from effectively handling a national threat.