The very first standard in the Society for Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics reads “Journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work; verify information before releasing it and use original sources whenever possible” (SPJ, 2014). Therefore the modern trend of “report now and apologize later” is a violation of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics.
Several media houses including CNN, the Associated Press, Fox News, the Boston Globe and other local Boston news outlets reported erroneously that an arrest had been made in the Boston marathon bombing, when there was none at the time (Carter, 2013). These faux pas set the work of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies back, and unfortunately such incidences of inaccuracies are all too common. Of this worrying trend the F.B.I. “warned that such unverified reporting could have “unintended consequences” for its investigation” (Carter, 2013). However, CNN thought that their sources were accurate and they vehemently defended their reporting because they had “three credible sources on both local and federal levels,” and “one of their law enforcement experts, Tom Fuentes, [was] a former assistant director of the F.B.I.” (Carter, 2013). The latter factor was reason enough for them to think that their sources were beyond reproach. While I am willing to give CNN the benefit of the doubt, Carter reports that in the previous year CNN and Fox News also misreported the result of the Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s health care overhaul law (2013), so there is a pattern of erroneousness, not just for CNN, but the media in general.
While the SPJ encourages journalists to “identify sources clearly” because “the public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources” (2014), very often sources are not revealed, so the authenticity of the source cannot be verified. Inaccurate reporting leads to unwarranted fear, hysteria and distress to the general public, especially in times of crisis. In the case of the Boston marathon bombing, the errors were many. In fact the Huffington Post released a video highlighting the numerous blunders the media made that week: incorrect pictures of possible suspects were posted on the front page of the New York Post; the Wall Street Journal reported that there were five additional explosive devices; it was broadcasted that cell phone service in the area was suspended, and MSNBC linked a fire at the JFK library to the Boston bombing (Siddiqui, 2013). It was a media frenzy of misinformation.
However one of the most tragic blunders was Reddit’s incrimination of missing 22 year old Brown student, Sunil Tripathi, as a second suspect. As a result, many posts and tweets were posted calling for death and pain on his family (Brostradamus, 2013) and the Facebook page that his family had set up to look for their beloved son and brother was desecrated by hate messages. After confirmation that Tripathi had not been involved, Reddit apologized, “The downside of instant journalism is that we sometimes get things wrong. And sometimes media outlets can take this false information and run with it” (Brostradamus, 2013). Nonetheless, apologizing after the fact is not enough; the damage had already been done. How does that fit with minimizing harm and treating the public with respect? “I share Buttry’s view that “the SPJ Code of Ethics needs to state unequivocally: Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of the stories; you should verify thoroughly enough to refute false information from sources” (2010).
We are all to blame for this trend. Journalists want to be the first to break a story; social media beats them to it every time and we, who are constantly connected to our mobile devices, want the news as it happens. Consequently, social media along with traditional media pander to us, in an effort to increase ratings, followers and ultimately advertising. It is a vicious cycle. In this twenty first century, “critics see a world without editors, of unfettered spin, where the loudest and most agreeable voice wins and where truth is the first casualty (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2011, p. 7). While this may be a fair assessment, because we all have the power to report the news, the onus is on everyone to be more media literate and act responsibly. Even so, journalists and traditional media must lead by example and not abdicate their positions as gatekeepers of the truth and facts. It is up to us all to dispel the fears of Judy Muller, a former network news correspondent, who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, that we have permanently entered The Age of Retraction in our rush to always be first to publish, post or tweet (Carter, 2013).
Brostradamus. (2013, April 19). We owe Sunil Tripathi’s family an outpouring of love and an apology. We brought unintentional pain to them tonight. Let’s find their son. Retrieved from http://www.reddit.com/r/inthenews/comments/1co5o1/we_owe_sunil_tripathis_family_an_outpouring_of/
Buttry, S. (2010, November 7). Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Time for an update? Retrieved from http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/journalists-code-of-ethics-time-for-an-update/
Carter, B. (2013, April 17). The F.B.I. criticizes the news media after several mistaken reports of an arrest. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/business/media/fbi-criticizes-false-reports-of-a-bombing-arrest.html?_r=1&
Kovach, B and Rosenstiel, T. (2011). Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload. New York: Bloomsbury USA
Siddiqui, S. (2013, April 22). Boston bombings reveal media full of mistakes, false reports (VIDEO). Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/22/boston-bombings-media-mistakes_n_3135105.html
Society for Professional Journalists. (Revised 2014, September 6). SPJ Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp