This time it took about 20 minutes to virtually debunk hours of reporting.
By now there's been plenty of flogging of the media for the rush to report identification of a possible suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, much less the "sources say" reporting said possible suspect was already in custody.
Oops doesn't quite cover it when so many get it so wrong, but it's also worth noting the irony of the rush to condemn reporters and editors for going with their reporting so soon. The irony is, many of those condemning the reporting are playing the same game.
They're right to decry anytime journalism rushes to report something false, as was the case Wednesday afternoon. To those who held off, such as NPR and NBC, congratulations. This time you were on the side of the righteous. Before pointing all those fingers, however, it might be helpful to think back and remember those fingers also point back to times when your performance has been equally poor.
Just as the easy take on Wednesday's events is to condemn the rush to get it first rather than right, the harder question is whether news organizations owe more to their audience than the "news is sausage" excuse when explaining just how things like this happen.
The perfect world of ten years ago meant newsrooms could be aware of what the competition was reporting but not report it themselves; we still labored under the illusion our own audiences were loyal consumers of our products, unspoiled by comparison to the reporting of others. We didn't need to waste broadcast time, ink or a single pixel acknowledging what others said. What mattered was purely what we reported, and it was ours alone.
Such editorial arrogance worked in a world where news consumers had one screen, one speaker or one sheet of paper in front of them. That horse left the barn quite some time ago, even as some of us fondly wish we could ride the buggy again. Speed of light distribution, the explosion of personal networking and social media changed the process from one of controlled distribution to a consumer-driven news market.
My fellow "seasoned" journalists will wring their hands on how this is lousy journalism; they're right. My cutting-edge colleagues will stand on the sidelines and remind us all how much the media stinks when they get it wrong; they're right. The Monday-morning quarterbacks were already out in force Wednesday afternoon with cute diagrams showing who got caught and who didn't, as if that's a true reflection of credibility.
Not answered as of the quick-to-respond from the sidelines are some fairly simple and central questions:
What was the true sourcing of the first reporting?
Is it good enough for the audience to be told the source or sources are credible?
Were all those news organizations talking with the same people, or different sources?
What exactly was the motivation for those "close to the investigation but not authorized to speak" to put such a massive news tip on the table?
I can't help but note many of those who swallowed this hook, line and sinker are professional. Some of them are friends, others are colleagues, others are competitors. None of them take pride in reporting false information; none of them are ready to base their reporting careers on single-source tips.
If multiple sources confirm a story is that enough to go with it? If the information turns out to be incorrect, or premature, then what is the responsibility of the news organization to pull back the curtain enough for a media-aware audience to understand just how and why these things happen?
RTDNA, SPJ, ASNE — all properly ask no less when dealing with organizations we report on. It's the exact sort of line of questioning we didn't see enough of when going to war in the past decade, and exactly the type of reporting we use as an example of how journalism let down the democratic process.
Are we strong enough to turn that light on ourselves? This time it was a feeding frenzy on developments Americans urgently want to hear -- bombers identified and arrested. Our public audience wants justice, and they'd like it to be swift and sure. This time we proved we understand, when it comes to reporting justice, we get the swift part. Sharing just how much harder it is to pin down the sure part is a hell of a lot harder.