If you haven’t watched or logged on to any news coverage since early Wednesday afternoon, the suspect photos that were released by the FBI today would come as a bit of a surprise to you.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s joint task force in Boston held a news conference late Thursday afternoon, announcing that they are releasing pictures and surveillance video of two suspects in Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. The previous day, Wednesday, almost every major credible news organization said they either had a suspect in custody, were likely to make an arrest soon, or already had made an arrest in the case. All three have different meanings and neither accounts for a suspect hasn’t even been identified as we later found.
The first report hinting about a purported arrest came from CNN’s John King who learned from a law enforcement source that a “dark-skinned male” was arrested. That would lead to a domino effect of other news organizations checking with their very own law enforcement sources and claiming a suspect was either identified or arrested.
Almost every news local affiliate in the country, print or broadcast, would go on and report the same citing their national affiliates. The back and forth on information would go on for close to two hours. In this case everyone who wanted to get it “first”, all got it wrong. The FBI later in the afternoon confirmed that no suspect had been arrested.
The pressure to be first to report breaking news is intense for those in the business. The viewer may see it as trying to beat the competition, but it’s not just that. It’s a duty journalist owe to the viewers who are watching expecting to hear the latest details on everything. That’s what news is about. To some people, who don’t know of any competition between television networks, watch only one source of news, and because of their reputation of good, efficient and expert reporting, it’s their trusted source of news and information. You’re not going to find too many journalist who say they’d rather have it first than right. But it’s a thin line to walk on, especially when in this business you’re expected to be first and right.
Not for nothin’, but as sure as these newly released pictures are bound to identify the bombing suspects, the misinformation of the battle between first and right news reporting will be trampled again. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. Consumer demand essentially requires it. You don’t pull through a McDonald’s drive-thru looking to wait 20 minutes for your Big Mac. Not only do you want it as soon as you get to the second window, but you want it with both patties, special sauce, cheese, pickles, onion on the sesame seed bun, made to a tee. Right or wrong, real or fake, true or false, no matter what the reporting is, let’s just hope in the endgame we’ll all have it right in saying these two suspects are in custody.