When reports that a suspect in the Boston bombing had been arrested flooded our newsroom Wednesday afternoon, editors scrambled to update our website. I imagine the scene was similar at other news outlets: the mad rush that ensues when trying to publish a story very fast that is also 100 per cent accurate.
In this particular case it was more difficult than normal to do since at many publications, the latter goal was losing out to the former. Headlines fought over whether a suspect had been arrested, or was even in custody at all. Our U.S. counterparts resorted to the headline equivalent of throwing their hands in the air: "They Can't All Be Wrong."
In the end, CNN, Fox News, AP and The Boston Globe were forced to backpedal on their arrest accusations, since none had in fact been made. It was a sobering lesson that in the rat race to be first, the media often ends up in last place.
When there was less competition in the breaking news landscape, journalists had the luxury of a little more time to ensure a story they published was factual. Now, in the mad dash for readers' eyeballs, the media often chooses fast over factual.
But who are publications serving by being the first to cross an invisible finish line? What the media often forgets is the stands are packed with other members of the media, not readers. Our readers, those we supposedly exist to serve, are often left wondering why no one is running in the race they truly care about: being right.
There are countless examples of how the media has opted for scooping the competition over presenting readers with accurate facts. Gordon Lightfoot and L'il Wayne's supposed deaths, the false reporting of the Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act being shut down, the false accusation of Adam Lanza's brother in the Newton shooting, and reporting on football star Manti Teo's "girlfriend" without bothering to check whether she actually existed. (Best typo in a headline goes to "Obama Bin Laden" but that's a whole other article.)
Luckily, reporting something is true does not mean it will suddenly happen. If that were the case, the media would have a lot of blood on their hands. But in addition to tarnishing people's reputations (we hope just temporarily, until the mistake is corrected), the other real damage the media do in these cases is creating a breach of trust with their readers.
A study by Triton Digital found that only one in eight people think that "internet-only news sources" are the most trusted places to get information. Mistakes can be made in any medium (in fact, some of the biggest factual errors about the Boston bomber were made by broadcast networks), but since the currency of speed is most valuable online (and it's the second most popular source of news), news websites need to be especially careful. And, perhaps, take a page from their long-form friends.
When the radio show "This American Life" dedicated a full episode to retracting a story they broadcast, and later learned was false, many found the reaction overblown (almost an hour-long episode just to say "We're sorry"?) But what Ira Glass and his team were doing was enforcing the strongest tie any media outlet should have with its readers: trust. And the fact that maintaining this trust can take time is something all outlets should remember today.