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April 23, 2013

Breaking the news

Rapid pace of today’s news cycle creates a culture in which accuracy is sacrificed for the scoop.

Last week was a wreck. Between the domestic tragedies of Boston’s marathon-turned-massacre, the murder of an MIT police officer, the terrorist manhunt that forced much of Massachusetts into lockdown, the fertilizer plant fire that has killed dozens and injured at least 100 more, and, abroad, the Pakistani and Chinese earthquakes that have collectively left over 1,000 people dead and thousands more severely injured, we barely had enough time to mourn one tragedy before the next one struck.

It was like the world suddenly decided to have its season finale, unleashing a wave of explosive dramarrhea that may not even be over. Even our own campus wasn’t immune; we soaked our way through three consecutive days of hail-smattered flash flooding and, ahem, “politically incorrect” student-submitted confessions.

One thousand–plus–mile distances relegated our experience of the globe’s greatest cataclysms to the looking glass of mass media which, though in high demand, is unable to generate the instant coverage that makes Reddit attractive. In order to compete, mass media began treating death, suspicion, and suffering as if they were spectator sports.

Plagued by misreporting and sensationalism every step of the way, last week’s news became “breaking” to the point of being “broken.” In a time when our country needed, above all, to feel safe and secure, news outlets instead chose to violate our trust by repeatedly publishing sensationalized, inflated, and completely apocryphal content.

The New York Post provided particularly pathetic coverage. On Monday, it reported a death toll of 12 (it was, in fact, two, at the time) and that authorities were suspecting a Saudi national (they weren’t). Despite quietly conceding these completely made-up claims the following day, many news sources repeated this information back to their own audiences.

So widespread was this nonsense that, by Wednesday, the FBI was forced to issue a statement that read, in part, “No arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack.…there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

In other words, Reporting 101. The Post’s—and others’—inaccurate reporting harmed, at least momentarily, the FBI’s far more important work of tracking down the real suspects. Fortunately, though, the Post thereafter backed down in its coverage and issued an apology for its factual gymnastics.

Except it then went on to repeat the same mistakes. The next day, the Post went so far as to publish a cover featuring a photo of two young men alongside the all-caps headline, “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” Neither of the individuals—two seventeen-year-old high school student track stars—was ever identified as a suspect in the investigation, nor did they even have anything to do with the bombings. But, in a mindless haste, Post and affiliates turned them into the momentary targets of an ever-growing witch hunt—a choice that, thanks to search engines and social media, has now permanently documented reports of these teens’ misstated identifications as persons of interest. It will resurface every time a prospective college, employer, or friend searches for their names online. The media’s cursory reporting will unfairly and unfortunately plague the rest of their young lives.

This isn’t even the first time that the mass media has turned up its sensationalist autopilot at the expense of an innocent bystander. As recently as December, scores of news agencies rushed to incorrectly—but collectively—identify the Newtown shooter. In times when what audiences needed most was truth, much of the press has proven willing to wager on prospective outcomes. Instead of setting us straight, these media outlets skewed facts in their sensationalist favor.

It’s almost as though we’ve returned to the era of yellow journalism. But instead of being driven by the ad space and paper sales of the late 19th century, today’s sensationalists drive in the fast lane of our burgeoning micro-blogging, multi-tasking culture—a culture that breeds an aversion to the kind of commitment that precedes truth and trust. Back then, the game tended more towards big fonts and hyperboles; today, the game is one of brevity and speed.

From the ways in which we communicate to the goals we set for ourselves and others, we’re becoming more and more expectant of instantaneous results. Faster is better; quick fixes are the solution to everything. But the notion that outpacing a competing paper by 30 seconds is more important than accurate reporting should be considered despicable. Reputable media outlets need to stop sacrificing accuracy for two second margins–and the only way they’ll do this is if we, as audiences, stop expecting the news to report itself before it even happens.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.

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