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Boston Bombing Showed the Break in "Breaking News"

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"I like my news right, not fast," wrote Huffington Post Canada Blogs Editor Angelina Chapin last week.

What Chapin is touching on here is an unsettling new practice sweeping the ranks of major mainstream media outlets -- scooping the news instead of vetting the facts.

For in a recent attempt to keep up with rabid Internet speculation, supposedly "professional" media channels including The Associated Press, CNN, The New York Post, Fox News, and The Boston Globe, have all inaccurately reported major aspects of the various stories continuing to unfold in the aftermath of the Boston bombings.

Unsurprisingly, the frequent mishaps from the past week are by no means the first instances of "trusted" media outlets misreporting critical parts of a major story.

In 1948, The Chicago Tribune mistakenly declared Thomas Dewey the winner of that year's presidential election. After the 1981 Reagan assassination attempt, multiple news networks wrongly announced his spokesperson -- James Brady, to have been killed in the crossfire. And in 2000, CNN infamously miscalculated Florida's vote count -- reporting a win for the Democrats and Al Gore in the presidential election.

But people make mistakes -- it's understandable that even the titans of media let the occasional error slip through their rigorous screening processes. Yet the problem -- for the media anyways, is the advent of user-driven reporting via the Internet has drastically reduced the news cycle from a matter of hours to a matter of seconds.

And in a misguided attempt to keep pace with the simultaneous chatter and speculation running rampant on content-aggregated social media sites such as Reddit and Twitter, more traditional media outlets are giving themselves less time to thoroughly scrutinise the facts behind a story before pushing it through to posting.

Expectedly, this "journalism by rat race" is resulting in a dramatic decline in quality, earnestness, and the general investigative ethos of the content currently being peddled by the daily newspapers, 24-hour television networks, and subsequent online subsidiaries which have come to define the conventional media landscape.

Of course, the news has never been -- and will never be, perfect. Information collected and interpreted by people will always reflect their own inherent subjectivities and partialities. But the decay we are presently witnessing is much more concerning than a mere, unavoidable media bias -- it is lazy, impulsive, sensationalistic journalism.

Just look at the media's disconcerting track record as of late. Since the rise of real-time amateur reporting on the Web has effectively eroded the media's longstanding monopoly over what information constitutes the news, reporting errors have reached their highest level in the 70 years that journalistic statistics have been collected.

In 2011, NPR, CBS, and Reuters all misreported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords died in an assassination attempt. In June 2012, CNN and Fox News wrongly declared that the US Supreme Court found the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to be unconstitutional, and in the Newtown shootings later the same year, countless news agencies misidentified the shooter and mixed up who was on staff in the school.

As for Boston, The New York Post ran two innocent men on the cover as suspects in the bombing, the usual offenders jumped the gun by reporting that there had been an arrest, and CNN took the cake for what may very well be the most embarrassing and sensationalistic hour of televised network journalism in recent media memory.

So if the past few years of melodramatic reporting, non-existent fact-checking, and informational apathy have taught us anything, it's that the days of mainstream media as an institution of sober-second thought and critical reflection are over -- no wonder just 25% of those recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that news organizations get their facts straight, while 66% said stories are "often inaccurate."

Thanks to that incessant need to keep up with the pitfalls and pandering found in social media reporting, the line between an informed media and the speculative masses has effectively disappeared -- now they're almost one and the same. And if professional reporters are not even going to take responsibility for redacting errors and running corrections, what makes them any different from fallible citizen journalists?

Obviously amateur social media reporting isn't perfect, far from it -- I've written an entire piece dedicated to uncovering some censoring pitfalls of user-driven content-aggregating websites, but the big difference is that the majority of users tend to take what they read from unprofessional sources on the Internet with a grain of salt -- something many of us still don't do when it comes to claims made by "expert" media.

Unfortunately, as Boston has reminded us, it seems that same salinization must now be applied to the big dogs. It's not that amateur sources on Twitter and Reddit have become more reliable than say CNN or The Associated Press -- unless perhaps said amateur is tweeting on location -- it's that the two have become indistinguishable.

As the majority of major media have decided to trade in diligence for speed, there is no longer a guarantee that the conclusions made by a career reporter tweeting from a news room will reflect a well thought out, well researched, critically reflexive point of view -- his or her thoughts may be just as zealous and fanatical as the rest of ours.

And that's fine. With the advent of the Internet, the curation of the news has become more of a conversation that a lecture. All the pitfalls of stitching together a story -- the theories, leads, mistakes, hunches, verifications, and conclusions are all out in the open in real-time, as opposed to dead on the nightly news' cutting room floor.

I for one prefer it this way -- the benefits of seeing how a story comes together far outweigh the negatives.

But with great informational access, comes great sceptical responsibility. This means think before you re-tweet, pause before you assume, and above all, examine claims by everyone from CNN lead anchor Wolf Blitzer to this amateur commentator through a rose-coloured lens of informed and guarded cynicism.

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