TERRE HAUTE —
Enough mistakes and maybe we’ll learn: When in doubt, leave it out.
I saw the spirit of that timeless journalistic warning used the other night in the Boston Marathon case. Boston police were closing in on Suspect No. 2 and the people at my table went on high alert.
This was at a journalism awards banquet in Indianapolis. The meal had ended and the awards were starting when one of the college students at my table began streaming CNN on a smartphone. He propped it up so we could see. Four other student reporters hunched over their own phones, working the wires, news apps, BostonBombing hashtags and everything else they could check.
“Second suspect caught!” somebody said. They were reading a Boston radio station’s tweet. There were more reports, mostly from outlets or people we had never heard of.
“Let’s tell them at the podium,” somebody said. For about 15 seconds, it seemed like a great idea. We could break the news. A roomful of reporters, photographers and editors would want to know.
But AP didn’t have it. Neither did CNN or the other mainstream sites we were following. And the talk at the table was properly skeptical.
How do we know this? Who do we trust? Do we believe it enough to risk relaying a false report and looking foolish? In this case, the mainstream reports came about 10 minutes later, and by then it was clear others were getting their own reports.
The table’s caution was just good common sense: It’s not enough to be well read these days. With so many sources of information you have to be part editor — skeptical, questioning, demanding confirmation.
As Farhad Manjoo of Slate said, observing the rash of media mistakes in the Boston coverage: “Breaking news is broken.”
Big-name outlets like CNN, AP, Fox and the Boston Globe all carried an early, incorrect report that a suspect was in custody. The New York Post ran photos of two innocent men with the headline: “BAG MEN: Feds seek these two …”
The errors during hot pursuit were numerous, and by now completely expected. Twitter routinely includes false reports — both unintentionally and by design, as when people passed along faked pictures after the bombing.
Seattle columnist Mónica Guzmán, following the Boston manhunt by police scanner and Twitter hash tags, notes that two people were falsely named as suspects on Twitter hours before the second suspect was captured.
“Everybody got on it, started sharing it, and started to attack the family of one of these suspects,” she writes. When the mistake was revealed, they issued no corrections and simply deleted their tweets. A social media error, it seems, means never having to say you’re sorry.
Online veterans know this. But social is still young. As of December, only 16 percent of online adults said they used Twitter.
There’s advice for those just joining the social mediasphere. It comes from the world of journalism, where putting an error in the copy is serious business. At many newspapers, a correction in the paper calls for an explanatory note to the boss. Fear breeds caution, when it comes to corrections.
Generations of editors have offered terse advice, including these old favorites:
n “When in doubt, leave it out.” Origin unknown, though my first wire-service news editor would repeat this as a mantra. It should tug at the conscience of any writer with a finger over the button during a hot story.
n “Get it first, but first get it right.” Attributed to United Press editors. Translation: No excuses.
And finally the classic, said to be the motto of the famed City News Bureau in Chicago. It only sounds like hyperbole:
“Check it out. If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
John Strauss teaches journalism and is a student media adviser at Ball State University. He was an editor at the AP’s headquarters in New York and also served as a correspondent and state editor for the wire service in Tennessee and Indiana. He is also a former reporter for The Indianapolis Star.