It seems we cannot blame social media for the shoddy performance of news outlets last week. They’ve always done a poor job with breakout news, at least according to Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. His description of the reporting of John F. Kennedy’s assassination includes lots of similarities to the Boston bombing from identifying innocent people as suspects to declaring arrests when none had occurred.
The difference, of course, is the ubiquitous nature of media in our lives. Sabato points out that most people were at work or school when the shooting occurred and wouldn’t have had access to the news. So, they missed the initial erroneous reports. I think, however, that Sabato misses the more crucial difference: the people who heard the erroneous reports could only spread them so far…perhaps over the back fence or by telephone to a friend. They couldn’t tweet and retweet and like and share, editing along the way to fit into 140 characters, or creating their own false reports that were then picked up by the media as truth.
I think Sabato offers sound advice:
Media gaffes and goofs should not be easily excused, since commendable restraint — occasionally, simple silence — is the obvious remedy. There should be a penalty for a big error, even if it is only severe criticism.
A simple statement: “here is what we know for fact and here is what we’re still checking out” would help give viewers perspective as they navigate the chocking flow of information. It allows news outlets to have it both ways: report the hearsay but make sure everyone knows it for what it is.