Tuesday, 16 April 2013

When breaking news becomes broken journalism

When breaking news becomes broken journalism, When breaking news becomes broken journalism

As the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing unfolded and the nation looked on in stunned silence and grief, media outlets and bloggers were scrambling to break the story as fast as they could or to spin it in a certain direction. Through speculation or leaked sources, each news organization or blogger rushed to get the first "scoop" on how many were dead, or who the suspect was, or what motives might have contributed to the bombings. Unfortunately, in their haste to get out in front of the story or to put a certain spin on the events, many of them neglected one important detail. "Scooping" a story is great, but if the "scoop" is not true, then it is not only useless, it does a disservice to not only the readers, but the victims of the tragedy who deserve not only our comfort and support, but also the truth. History should remind as that early reports are often inaccurate.

Oklahoma City bombing and early speculation that the suspect was Arab

On April 19, 1995, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, Abraham Ahmad, a United States citizen of Jordanian descent was detained by authorities because he was of Middle Eastern descent and because he had booked a flight from Oklahoma City to Amman, Jordan the day of the bombing. The media speculated that Ahmad was connected to the Oklahoma City bombing and many Muslim and Arab Americans were targeted by angry citizens in hate crimes that followed. Former Oklahoma Congressman Dave McCurdy and "terrorism expert" Steven Emerson immediately speculated that Muslim students from the University of Oklahoma must have been responsible. In apparent retaliation, a white male committed back to back drive by shootings on the Mosque and the Islamic Community Center in Stillwater, Oklahoma on the 19th and 20th. He was outraged because one of his friends had been injured in the Oklahoma City bombing.

FOX News and NPR report the shooting death of Gabrielle Giffords

In another case of getting the initial story horribly wrong, on January 8, 2011, major news outlets including FOX News and NPR, reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been shot and killed. Although Giffords was seriously wounded in the Tucson supermarket shooting, she did survive and is still recovering from the attack. In their haste to break the story, both FOX News and NPR relayed reports that Giffords had been killed. NPR's initial report also described Jared Loughner as possibly being in his late teens, although it turns out that he was considerably older. Often these news agencies report from anonymous sources, making it difficult for the public to determine the credibility of the source.

ABC News speculates that Jim Holmes from Colorado Tea Party could be theater shooter

Following the Aurora Theater shooting, ABC's Brian Ross pointed out that there was a Jim Holmes from Aurora, Colorado who was listed as a member on the Colorado Tea Party site. Although Ross did not state unequivocally that this Holmes was the same James Holmes as the shooter, his speculation certainly was irresponsible and clearly suggested that he was making the connection, even if he used cautionary words to avoid saying it directly. Again in an effort to "scoop" the story first, Ross and ABC abandoned responsible journalism and went for cheap speculation that impugned the character of a man who had no connection to the violence committed in the Aurora Theater massacre.

The New York Post speculates suspect in custody: Boston Police contradict Post's claim

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon tragedy, the New York Post was quick to report a dozen dead, while other news sources were reporting just two dead. In addition, the New York Post reported that authorities had identified a Saudi national as a suspect, and that he was being guarded in a Boston hospital with shrapnel wounds. Other media outlets quickly engaged in pack journalism and repeated the New York Post's "suspect in custody" claim, although few outlets were willing to speculate about the higher death toll. The Boston Police Department followed the New York Post report by stating they did not have a suspect in custody. The Oklahoma City bombing should remind us that even if the police have a "person of interest", we as citizens and those in the media should not rush to judgement.

Alex Jones and others speculate motives and suspect profiles without evidence

In social media and on alternative media sites, some posters speculated that the attack was a Tea Party inspired attack because of the original anniversary of the Boston Tea Party or because Sandy Hook families were seated in the bleachers near the 26-mile mark. Others blamed Muslims. Alex Jones was quick to call the bombing a "false flag" attack initiated by the government. Given how little information we have at this point, all of these public speculations about suspects and motives are lacking in credible evidence. Although Americans are permitted wide latitude in freedom of expression, there is no reason for media outlets or social media activists to engage in groundless speculation that does nothing but arouse passions without leading us closer to answers. Investigators should pursue every lead possible to bring the perpetrators to justice, but those with little or no information would do best to say little, until more information becomes available.

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