There are arguably two forces that may be destroying the ethics of journalism today. The first is the competition for rankings and advertising that drives the obsession to report something “first” in a 24-hour news cycle. The second is that social media exacerbates the first. These two forces make journalists vulnerable to poor, unethical reporting. We are seeing this play out in what could easily be considered unethical coverage of the tragedy in Boston by CNN and other news platforms.
On Wednesday CNN’s John King reported from law enforcement “sources” that the suspect was a dark-skinned male.
“I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things…I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this is a dark-skinned male.”
In fact, many other news media outlets have been misled by “sources” that were simply wrong. When CNN and others reported that there was a suspect there actually was no suspect. There was no “dark skin male” or any other male. Eric Deggans, reporting for the Tampa Bay Times explained the debacle:
CNN anchor John King reported around 1:30 p.m. [on Wednesday] that police had identified a suspect in the bombing. About 15 minutes later, he added that an arrest had been made, citing sources in Boston police department, backed by a former presidential homeland security advisor-turned-CNN contributor, Fran Townsend.
Fox News also sent a message on Twitter at 2:05 p.m. saying suspect had been arrested; seven minutes later, the Boston Globe tweeted an arrest was “imminent” and three minutes after that, the Associated Press reported on Twitter that a suspect had been taken into custody.
They were all wrong. Very wrong.
Understandably, the gravity of the event may explain why there was such a frenzy to report based on shoddy information, but journalism has ethical standards because the consequences for misrepresenting the truth can be dire. The standard used to be “verify, then report,” but today the standard is “report, and apologize later if you feel like it.” For example, journalists listening to the Boston Police scanner named Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old student at Brown University who has been missing since March 16th, as a suspect in the Boston bombing even though no official report of Tripathi’s role had been announced by the FBI. It was then reported on social media, again, without official verification from federal law enforcement. A few hours later, after the initial report from shoddy sources, Tripathi’s family became victims of brutally vitriolic messages all over the internet. The family and supporters of Tripathi actually took down the Facebook page established to help find their missing son, brother, and friend. The Facebook page is back online today with this message:
A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours. We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil. We are grateful to all of you who have followed us on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit—supporting us over the recent hours. Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support. We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil.
The bottom line is that, because of perverse incentives, the news media did wrong by the Tripathi family by alleging, without verification, that this young man committed an act of violence and murder that he did not, in fact, commit. The resultant reporting is simply an instance of “bearing false witness.” In the future, because of advertising and social media branding pressures, news media outlets are going to make better trade-offs for the sake of doing what is right because there is more to reporting than ratings and advertising revenue. Remaining committed to the truth, and reporting the truth, is the best way to maintain credibility as a reliable source for news and information. CNN, and others, failed us all in this regard this week.