Last week, I wrote about how the news media tends to make mistakes when reporting breaking news. During the past week, even more people in news media have reported inaccurate material. Shockingly, even the AP made mistakes last week.
In a memo released today, Associated Press executive editor Kathleen Carroll apologized for the AP’s errors. “We made mistakes because we didn’t follow our own very good guidelines,” she said. The guidelines she is referring to are requiring multiple sources, using anonymous sources only when they have a good reason to remain anonymous and being clear to readers about what the AP does not know.
These are very good rules. But do they also apply to social media?
On Thursday, thousands of reporters (and tweeters) wrote and spoke about Sunil Tripathi, who they said was a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. However, the suspect’s name had been crowdsourced from Reddit, and it was incorrect. Sunil Tripathi is actually a missing person who has nothing to do with the Boston Marathon bombings.
What could both the news media and social media have done differently to ensure that their reporting was accurate? Using the AP’s guidelines, thousands of internet users likely count as “multiple sources.” I think the problem in this case is that these were not thousands of knowledgeable sources. They were sources who thought that a picture released by the FBI looked like Tripathi. But they weren’t people who knew Tripathi and could vouch for his location and behavior. They also generally weren’t authority figures, such as members of the Boston police force.
Internet commenters can be great sources, but it’s important to know when to use them. Generally, I wouldn’t trust internet sources about breaking news during a national tragedy.
As for mistakes in broadcast media, this news anchor was fired after only one day on the job for making a mistake:
His mistake was to swear on daytime television, and he lost his job over it. However, I doubt that the journalists who reported erroneous material about the Boston bombers were similarly fired. Why does the news media treat profanity as worse than falsely accusing someone of being a terrorist?