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Coverage of Marathon Tragedy Highlights Modern Media Woes


Covering a breaking story in which information is at a premium and demand is rather high, never makes for an easy day in the newsroom. Add in the emotional nature of a tragic event and the likelihood that information will be rushed to copy escalates, but the series of blunders and irresponsible coverage surrounding last week's events in Boston revealed major flaws in an industry that has become increasingly less of a service and much more of a product.

In the rush to break news and under an arguably self-imposed requirement to provide a constant flow of wall to wall coverage on such an event, even the best-resourced news outlets made historic mistakes last week. CNN's sloppy misreporting of a supposed arrest last Wednesday was the most public mistake, but it was far from being alone, as Fox News, the Boston Globe and even the Associated Press also reported the faux arrest. 


Multiple media outlets reported that the suspects had robbed a 7-11, then retracted it. CBS reported that a license plate number for their car has been released by police, but had to retract it before the anchor could even finish reading the supposed digits. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported additional bombs to have been discovered on the marathon route, when they hadn't. Of course, the fact that CNN had only recently been embarrassed by inaccurately rushing to report that the Supreme Court had overturned Obamacare made them an easier target for ridicule. 


The real question is not whether reporting has changed in the age of instant information – that much is obvious. However, we must ask what role various media outlets wish to play in the new paradigm. Information aggregators and social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit are always going to deliver an endless flow of information during such events, but trying to compete in real time with venues whose users accept an incredibly high rate of error going in, while still earnestly attempting to authenticate information, is a losing proposition at best. 


Yet that's exactly what last week's coverage looked like. I happened to be on vacation while the tragedy in Boston unfolded, which allowed me to reverse roles and consume news, rather than produce it for others. What I saw on virtually every news station was something that resembled a verbal Twitter feed, anchors endlessly regurgitating the flow of words coming through their ear pieces, interspersed with retractions and fill content, which mostly comprised of "expert analysis" weighing in on what we could expect to be happening, since we didn't know.


The longer I watched the news, the less I knew about the events that transpired and that definitely shouldn't be the case. I couldn't believe how remarkably difficult it was just to acquire a concise running tally of that which we knew to be true, especially since it turned out that such scant information could have fit neatly on a few bullet points. During that kind of event, information is always going to be fragmented, disjointed and often erroneous. What matters is how it is organized and presented to audiences. If every outlet from TV to Internet to print (and their websites) are in the rush to shout it out first business, we end up with 57 channels and nothing on.


Perhaps most remarkable in all of the colossal mistakes made last week, was the collective shrug our industry seemed to give in place of more traditional apologies. It seemed to be saying that this sort of coverage is the new normal. Without a 6 p.m. newscast, a daily edition or other more concrete deadlines to fixate on, news is now an expensively-produced Twitter feed with better graphics. 


Doubtlessly, the best, or at least most coherent and accurate coverage of the events, will ultimately come from the few remaining print magazines, which seem to be the only remaining news platforms that have the luxury to investigate leaks, tips and rumors and then put information through multiple levels of fact-checking prior to publication. As those mediums continue to transition to digital and become increasingly devoted to immediacy rather than quality, one must wonder whether news as we once knew it will become a thing of the past, replaced by little more than a high-tech rumor mill where 50 percent accuracy is a lofty goal. 


Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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