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Thoughts & Views: Running with a story – and stumbling

On Monday, April 15, being otherwise occupied and not one of those people who tweet or Facebook, I had not been online, or near a TV, all day, so I was oblivious to what had happened in Boston.

I returned home and flipped on the television, and there on the screen was President Obama addressing the nation and stating, “We will find out who did this and bring them to justice” (or words to that effect).

Did WHAT?

Of course, the story was all over the news and I soon found out about the bombings, the coverage of which I followed all week.

On Friday, I awoke to the clock radio and a live feed from a press conference, with some official stating, “The entire city of Boston is in lock-down. People are being asked to shelter in place.”

WHAT? Apparently, I had gone to sleep the night before just prior to when the news broke about the shootout between police and the terror suspects.

For much of the day, I was glued to the TV, following, as best I could, the dramatic events unfolding in Watertown, Mass. I flipped from channel to channel and was struck by the same thing I had thought during the week: How misinformative much of the coverage was.

This is partly due to the desire to scoop the competition (something I touched on in last week’s column about the feeding-frenzy for sound bites). But it is also because, when you’ve got nonstop coverage, you’ve got to fill the airtime with something. So straight, factual reporting can take a backseat to the “yadayadayada” of the talking heads. And, worse, to errors.

A prime example was CNN’s now-infamous report Wednesday that “sources” had informed them of an arrest of a suspect in the bombings. It took them about an hour to confirm this was not so.

On Friday, Scott Pelley on CBS started to report that Connecticut police had issued a BOLO for a green Honda sedan with Massachusetts plates. But before he went any further, he interrupted himself. He was getting new info. And he immediately made a correction: No such alert had been issued. Good for you, Scott.

At least a half-hour after that, another network announced that Connecticut police were looking for a green Honda . . . which still was not true. Disgusted, I changed the channel, so I don’t know how long it took them to correct their mistake. I might be wrong, but somehow I doubt it was immediate.

This is dangerous territory because we all make mistakes (which is why The Observer puts corrections on this page when warranted), but mistakes are most egregious when they involve a high-profile story about which the entire world is awaiting accurate information.

Too often, in the race to be first, what is sometimes reported as fact, isn’t fact at all. There has long been an in “joke” among journalists about how bad the reporting can be when someone not completely on the ball is covering a breaking story. We’re aware of it. You should be, too.

This is not deliberate carelessness. It is explicable. But it is still not excusable. Suggestion: You might consider keeping a few grains of salt next to your remote.

– Karen Zautyk

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