We talked yesterday about Dr. Reynolds’ CERC model for emergency risk communication (and what a huge fan of the curriculum I am), and the three main tenets: be first, be credible, be right. Sounds good in a training, and it reads wonderfully as a best practice, but how doable is it really?
Turns out not so much. And the Boston bombings were a perfect example of the tradeoffs made when folks, including the media, try to do all three at once. Being first is easiest, being right is hard (and frankly, can be a moving target), and credibility suffers if you mess up either of the other two. Unfortunately, examples of failure can be found on just about any day from that week. From the reports of unexploded bombs being found, to inflated death counts, to mistaken accusations, to reports of the second bomber being caught (before he actually was, obviously). A lot of this can be attributed to the fog of the situation, but how much went unverified because it was too much work to untangle the less-than-truths, and besides it’s so darn foggy, anyways.
Most of the late night joke fodder centered around the mass media (especially CNN and the New York Post), but I think we’ve all got some skin in the game. How many of us didn’t check multiple reports before retweeting something? I could give the blow-by-blow, but it’s too sad. A simple Google search for, “news organization got it wrong in Boston,” is depressing enough.
It got so bad that the FBI had to release a statement–like some small-town sheriff dealing with an overzealous national media for the first time–admonishing the press. The Boston Police, like experts in crisis communications, took to the source of many of the rumors, Twitter, to try to unring the social media bell.
The problem is that while we understand that unsourced social media reports aren’t to be necessarily trusted, the media, in their rush to be first, are starting to depend on these breaking news reports as initial sources. So when CNN says something’s true, it lends an air of credibility to something that’s little more than a rumor. And those reports have real consequences. One only needs to look at the market drop that followed the AP’s hacked tweet on a bomb at the White House.
More seriously, reports of a “dark-skinned” suspect lead many, including the junior crowd-sourcing detectives on Reddit to mistakenly finger Sunil Tripathi, a missing college student. Just this week, Sunil was found dead (apparently not connected with the witch hunt). The editors and owners of Reddit thought this such an egregious act, they subsequently published an apology and reviewed their longstanding policy of not allowing g personal identification anywhere on the site. All in the name of getting it first.
The news isn’t all bad, though. Organizations like CBS and NBC and the New York Times got props for doing it right. Speaking of the Times, this whole episode reminded me of an article I’ve been saving since December. The Public Editor of the Times, after the Newtown shooting and there were similar calls for a return to real journalism, published an article that said this:
In the future, [reporter Wendy Ruderman] would prefer that everyone adhere to this rule: “We shouldn’t put anything in the paper without a name attached to it.” In other words, there would be no reliance on anonymous law enforcement officials.
Which I think is a pretty cool thing to say. But my favorite part is this:
The Times can’t get pulled into the maelstrom of Twitter-era news. It has to stand apart from those news sources that are getting information out in a fast, piecemeal and frequently inaccurate way. That process has its own appeal and its own valuable purpose. But The Times should be its authoritative and accurate counterbalance.
Because in a world where being first too frequently leads to disaster, being right is the most valuable thing a news organization can do. That’s where their credibility comes from, that’s the hook that will move mass media into the future. They will never compete with social media, and they shouldn’t try to. As one of my favorite Tweeters said: