Having already written about how competition and the desire for one-upmanship is part of what makes a newspaper as good as it can be, I’m now going to tell the other side of the story. Sometimes the desire to beat the competition and get the “scoop,” results in big time errors.
One recent example of this came during the intensive reporting on the Boston Marathon Bombing when CNN and AP reported an arrest had been made and an arraignment would take place at the Federal Courthouse in Boston. At CNN the network said its reporters followed the policy of getting the information from at least two independent sources before going public with it. One reporter said he got his info from an anonymous federal law enforcement source and the other said she got her info from an anonymous local law enforcement source.
As a result crowds began to gather at the Federal Courthouse, which was then evacuated as a result of a bomb scare. Boston Police set the record straight with an official announcement denying any arrest had taken place.
The episode points out the mistake of placing too much trust in “sources” that are anonymous and also the potentially embarrassing error of going public based on such sources. When people put their names to the information it’s much more likely to be valid. Citing an anonymous source is a reporting technique that involves a lot of trust. Sometimes that trust is misplaced. In those cases it isn’t the source whose reputation gets tarnished. It’s the reporter who spreads that inaccurate information. And, of course, the news agency he or she works for.