Blunders blemish media coverage of Boston

By Jayson Jacoby April 26, 2013 08:27 am

After watching, and reading, the journalistic blunders that blemished the otherwise commendable news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, I better understand why many people distrust reports which rely on anonymous sources.

It’s a whole lot easier to accept anonymity, it seems to me, when the nameless person is at least, you know, right.

But the anonymous sources were wrong when they told multiple media outlets, both print and electronic, that a suspect had been arrested last Wednesday, two days after the explosions that killed three people and injured more than 250.

We don’t as a rule use anonymous sources at the Herald.

This isn’t to say we never will.

But our parent company, Western Communications Inc., is pretty particular about when it allows its publications to cite nameless sources.

I think this is appropriate. We’re supposed to be giving information to people, not keeping it from them.

For national publications, though — and in particular for journalists who report about the federal government — anonymous sources are the grease without which the media mechanism would soon seize up.

This system runs smoothly in the main, and the secrecy is defensible because it serves a valuable purpose: The public gets important information that probably would remain hidden were the sources refused the protective cloak of anonymity.

The best-known example, of course, is Watergate.

But Woodward and Bernstein were lionized because the source known as Deep Throat — FBI agent Mark Felt — knew what he was talking about.

The tips Felt supplied were accurate, and the information helped the two Washington Post reporters find other sources — many of whom were quoted by name — who the journalists needed to expose the skullduggery of the Nixon administration.

The multiplicity of sources is a crucial point.

The simplified version of Watergate — that a couple of reporters used one anonymous source to topple a presidency — is too simple.

Anonymous sources aren’t truly anonymous, of course.

The reporter knows the source’s name. And in most cases, so do at least a couple of editors or other officials from the media outlet.

Generally speaking, the anonymous source’s claims are corroborated by at least one other source before a story is printed or broadcast — ideally, by a source who doesn’t request anonymity.

The crux here is that journalists don’t blithely regurgitate what anybody tells them.

Reporters not only know their anonymous sources; they trust them.

It’s the reporter’s name on the story, after all, not the source’s.

All of which makes last week’s botched reporting so puzzling to me.

Some pundits speculate that journalists succumbed to the pressure created by the burgeoning power of social media. Reporters, loathe to be scooped on the biggest story of the year by somebody with a smartphone and a Twitter account, must have relaxed their standards.

That’s plausible.

But I doubt it’s the truth.

I think it’s more likely that a handful of law enforcement officials — the anonymous sources who wrongly claimed a suspect had been arrested were almost invariably described as being in law enforcement — spoke to journalists with rather more confidence than was warranted.

I don’t believe any of the sources lied to journalists.

And that might be the most troubling aspect of the whole debacle.

Nobody lied, perhaps nobody even intentionally embellished what they knew, and yet major news outlets, some of which cited “multiple” anonymous sources, reported as fact something that was indisputably false.

And the mistake wasn’t some minor detail of the story — this was far from transposing the letters of someone’s name, or fouling up a chronology by 20 minutes.

I hope the Boston bombing becomes a watershed of sorts for journalism.

I suspect it will.

If nothing else comes of this mess, journalists should at least consider whether anonymous sources, no matter how reliable they have been nor how many tell the same tale, might be fallible when a story is as big, and as rapidly developing, as the manhunt for the bombers was.

Reporters will never stop striving to be the first to get the story, of course.

Nor should they.

To do otherwise would be a disservice to their customers, and a discredit to their profession.

But when it comes to getting a story wrong, well that’s a scoop best left to Twitter and Facebook.

Probably I’ll never know who doled out bad information in Boston last week.

But I’ll always remember which media outlets put their names, and their reputations, on the foul ups.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.