It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, The Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?
I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they don't care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what happened. I don't think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.
Let's take an example. The New York Post insisted for most of yesterday that 12 people had died in the explosions, for no apparent reason (they're not claiming it anymore, but today their web site prominently features Mark Wahlberg's reaction to the bombings, so they've still got the story covered). I don't know what reporter came up with that information, but the fact that they disseminated it despite being wrong shows how useless the search for "scoops" becomes at a time like this. There were lots of other pieces of information circulating that turned out to be untrue (like the story repeated everywhere that the police had found more unexploded devices) as well.
There are two kinds of scoops, the real and the ephemeral. A real scoop is a story that would not have come to light, either at all or at least for a considerable amount of time, had it not been for your reporting. When a reporter exposes corruption, or details the unforeseen consequences of official policy, or even just offers a compelling portrait of people whose story wouldn't have otherwise been told, she has gotten a genuine scoop. Then there's the far more common kind, what many in the media consider a scoop but is no scoop at all. That's when you discover and publish some piece of information that everyone is going to learn very soon, but you happen to be the one who got it out ten minutes or ten seconds before your competitors.
Media organizations, particularly television news operations, are obsessed with this second kind of scoop, despite the fact that not only does it offer nothing of value to their audience, it doesn't even give them any advantage in the hyper-competitive arena in which they operate. Nobody ever said, "I used to watch MSNBC, but then I heard that CNN went on the air with the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial a full 30 seconds before any other network, so I'm watching CNN from now on." When everybody is going to have a piece of news in seconds, getting it first doesn't help you at all. Nobody remembers and nobody cares, nor should they.
But if you're obsessed with getting it first, you end up not getting it right. That goes beyond reporting things that are false (which happens often enough) to offering second-rate coverage because your reporters are running around trying to find out something, anything, that none of their competitors know, instead of trying to assemble a complete and informative picture for the audience.
When something like the Boston bombing happens, the chaos pushes journalists toward those we-got-it-first scoops, when in fact there's no time when those scoops are less important. Almost all the big critical facts are going to end up being given to journalists by the authorities, whether it's about the casualties or the nature of the devices used or the suspects, once they have them. No reporter is going to catch the bomber before the FBI does. Given that, they'd do much better to slow down and worry less about what piece of information they can get a minute or two before their competitors do than about how they can give their audiences something closer to true understanding.