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How cable news contributed to the misinformation machine

On Thursday, we brought you a story about how both the New York Post newspaper and subsets of online communities like Reddit and 4chan had publicized or circulated photos of supposed possible "suspects" in the Boston Marathon bombings, none of whom turned out to be the actual suspects. 

On Friday, we followed up with a blog post about how those same online communities persisted in trying to identify the Boston bombers after the FBI's images of the real suspects were released, fingering another innocent person in the process.

So it's only fair that today we complete the saga with a look at how how cable news contributed to the misinformation machine last week. And Ali Velshi, the Toronto-raised former CNN anchor, has delivered just such an examination today on Quartz, a business-news website.

Velshi recently left CNN to join Al Jazeera America, which doesn't launch until later this year. So as his post points out, he followed the Boston bombings as a news consumer rather than a news producer.

In fact it was CNN who committed perhaps the most criticized on-air error, after falsely reporting on Wednesday afternoon that a suspect had been arrested. The Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and Fox News all followed. The lone surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was actually arrested more than 48 hours later, on Friday night.

Velshi asks: "How does the news get it so wrong?" and then answers as best he can, given his 20 years of broadcast experience.

In fast-breaking stories, "Mistakes happen regularly on cable news because of the inexact and unreliable nature of rolling coverage." TV anchors have to keep talking to fill air time. And they need facts -- news -- to fill that air time. Problems start, Velshi writes, when officials won't disclose any new facts, but information starts trickling out anyway.

"A cop tells an old reporter friend something on the side. Or a cop tells a retired cop who has a friend. Or someone sees a squad car racing to a station with lights and sirens. ...Badly-sourced news never starts out as totally wrong information."

And when a piece of information gets into a reporter's hands and it's an important development, like the arrest of a suspect, reporters turn to sources that can confirm it. But gauging the trustworthiness of sources in the pressure-filled haze of a breaking news situation can be tough: judgments are clouded, time is clipped, and demand is relentless.

"The “Crowd,” in front of their televisions and on their smartphones, is making us move faster, demanding updates and developments," says Velshi.

When that information turns out to be wrong, the same crowd that drove the demand in the first place is crushingly harsh.

"It’s hard in this hyper-competitive market to even be second. Regularly being first wins you awards and accolades and audiences. But being wrong is, at best, a hard kick in the gut. At its worst, it can cost a journalist his or her career and an organization its credibility. Whether or not you tweet at us about it, we journalists actually do understand that being right is all that should matter.  That’s never clearer than right after we’ve made a big mistake," Velshi concludes. 

Velshi's piece shows what should be obvious by now: that when newspapers, cable news networks, or online communities propagate errors, they are never operating in a bubble. News networks trying to keep pace with viewers' appetite for new information, appetites driven in part by the pace of Twitter, where news is often being broken anyway. Newspapers do the same. Sometimes the source of news networks' information is online. Online communities monitor mainstream media constantly.

The Boston bombings were by no means the first major news story of this year in which both print news, cable news networks, and online communities contributed to a cascade of inaccurate information -- after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., all three were responsible for disseminating errors, including the identity of the shooter. After Newtown, there was at least as much criticism as there is today.

Has anything improved? Will it? And how?

Velshi's Quartz piece can be read in full here

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.  


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Velshi is hardly the spokesman for accurate journalism. What is left of his career will be forever highlighted by him standing in a puddle trying to embellish flooding during a storm as people stood behind him in the shot on dry land. Good luck on the reality TV circuit Ali!

Watching the news coverage of the boat standoff made me ill. The networks knew nothing, but kept spewing out speculation and innuendo. Diane Sawyer stood out as a looney, failing to understand how the cops could use a robot to look in the boat made her look stunned. I turned it off, it was pointless drivel.

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