How Media Can Avoid Tripping Over Fast-Paced Developments

Host Jacki Lyden speaks with Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute about the problematic media coverage of the Boston bombings and other breaking news events. He discusses how journalists can avoid the all-too-common pitfalls when reporting on a developing story.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt was just the latest in a string of breaking news events that yielded less than accurate reporting. From Hurricane Sandy to the Newtown shooting, misreporting, amateur detective work and rumors seem to be the new normal when it comes to breaking news cycles.

I'm speaking now with Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute about what went wrong and how or if we as journalists can do better next time. And, Craig, thank you very much for being with us.

CRAIG SILVERMAN: Thank you.

LYDEN: So in the course of this bombing and then the manhunt, we saw all this social media coverage by the major news outlets. And then the Twitter feeds were also retweeting information from journalists on various outlets. It became kind of a misinformation loop. What happens to the facts and fact-checking in the process?

SILVERMAN: Well, there's - it's very difficult, I think, for a lot of people who are in the moment reporting it and certainly for those of us who are sort of watching it and taking it all in to take a step back and to think about, OK, where has this information come from? And as much as news organizations are trained to do that and try to do that, I think that the natural rapid pace that things are developing at inevitably leads us to having things going on the air or going online that simply aren't true. And that's been the case, I think, always with big breaking news events.

The difference is that we see these incremental pieces of information and they're put out there completely. Whereas, before, they might have been held in the newsroom where there wasn't the pressure to get it out every second, every moment because people were waiting on Twitter and other places to get it.

LYDEN: You know, it makes me think of that warning: If you see something, say something. Only the problem is, is that there's very little reward, it would seem, sometimes for waiting.

SILVERMAN: For journalists, to be striving to get the first little bit of incremental advancement and be always first with that - in the end, it doesn't really pay off. I wish that the calculation was a little bit different in newsrooms. I wish that there was that element of restraint a little bit more, because in the long run, you really do win out by being the one, in some cases, who doesn't say anything.

LYDEN: I want to talk a little bit, Craig, about amateur detective work. Users on reddit and 4chan immediately started to comb through the video to try and identify the suspect. And then the New York Post did that as well and identified the wrong people with big circles around faces. What happened there?

SILVERMAN: The image of those two people was circulated within the law enforcement community as potential people that they wanted to talk to and look into. But the New York Post took that image, said, OK, well, you know, the law enforcement are circulating this, let's throw this on the cover and let's call them bag men.

When people are sitting and watching the news, maybe they're refreshing Twitter every second, like I was doing, they want to see if there's a way to have a productive contribution to it. And there's a feeling, I think, with media today where you can participate, where you can, you know, blog something. And so in places like reddit and 4chan, for me, I see people wanting to play some kind of a role.

LYDEN: Do you think it was a mistake for the police to ask the public for help in ID'ing the suspects?

SILVERMAN: I don't think it's ever a mistake for that to be done. However, perhaps we now need a little bit more focused guidance, a little bit more specific direction of, you know, here's what's helpful and here's what isn't, and here's what's doing something that is going to be useful to the investigation and here is doing something that may actually paint people mistakenly as terrorists.

LYDEN: Craig, what do you think we should keep in mind the next time there's some kind of news cycle like this where there's just a lot of conflicting information and things are happening very rapidly?

SILVERMAN: You know, there are a few things that I think both journalists and sort of members of the public should keep in mind. The first one is that in a breaking news situation, confusion reigns. It reigns not only for the first few minutes and hours, but it can actually continue on for a period of days. The second thing is that misinformation spreads the same as accurate information.

I think one of the big things to remember is that it's very easy to hold back. You don't lose anything by holding back. And, in fact, there's a much more risk if you decide to be a conduit for some of this confusion and misinformation.

You know, those few points, I think, can help a lot of people and can maybe, in that heat of the moment, make someone realize that, you know, if I take an extra few minutes, I may actually cut through some of the confusion rather than amplify it.

LYDEN: Craig Silverman, the founder of the Regret the Error blog at the Poynter Institute. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

SILVERMAN: Thank you.

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