Contrary to popular rumor, journalists are human beings. News reporting, especially the breaking kind, is a fluid process of trying to wring sense from horror, disaster, confusion and chaos. Errors are bound to occur.
However, there's a difference between an honest-to-God mistake and scapegoating; between an error and a breakneck race to reach first base first.
Last week, in their rush to break the news, some news outlets and social media sites falsely implicated several innocent men — and even one TV actress — following the terror attacks at the Boston Marathon.
Encircled photos of two males, including Salah Barhoum, a 17-year-old high school sophomore, were splashed by The New York Post, accompanied by a screaming "Bag Men" headline. It was shoddy speculation that could have gotten two more innocent people killed.
CNN broke news of a "person of interest" in custody: a "dark-skinned male," which is code-talk now for "Middle Eastern Islamic extremist."
Though the network claimed that it relied on three sources, the scoop was as wrong as two left shoes. Even if CNN was played for a chump, any description of a suspect that doesn't come from an official source, on the record, is risky and reckless.
"The fact that this information was false is only part of the problem," NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous said in a statement last week. "Our concern is that CNN used an overly broad, unhelpful and potentially racially inflammatory categorization to describe the potential suspect. History teaches us that too often, people of color are unfairly targeted in the aftermath of acts of terrorism."
It does indeed. In the late 1890s, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst launched a relentless campaign to push President William McKinley into invading Cuba and "liberating" it from Spain. Hearst crammed his newspapers with purple prose and laughably doctored photos of white-skinned Cuban maidens being debauched by swarthy, mustachioed Spaniards.
Imagine his luck when the USS Maine exploded and sank into Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898.
After viewing 1915's "The Birth of a Nation," President Woodrow Wilson, a Dixiecrat who all but unraveled Republican Theodore Roosevelt's progress on race relations, lauded the film as "history written by lightning."
He was partly right. The movie, which depicted black men as licentious savages and Klansmen as gallant heroes, wreaked as much damage as a lightning strike.
But we in modern media are supposed to be the enlightened ones. Yet the stampede by some last week caused the exact same kind of harm we've seen throughout history.
Last week, a Saudi student and spectator was tackled because he ran when the bombs detonated.
Page 2 of 2 - Well, no kidding.
He was taken into police custody, during which he consented for his apartment to be searched by authorities, who found nothing but a roommate. Yet this didn't satisfy the online-media community in Crazytown who accused the Obama administration of a cover-up to appease the Saudis.
Credibility at risk
We know some users of social media don't care about the wreckage they cause because there are no real consequences for doing so. But the news media can't be pressed and pushed to follow suit. Credibility can't be risked like some poker chip.
The nature of TV news is such that it's a 24-hour eating machine whose producers live in constant fear that you'll turn the channel. Even so, not everyone dropped the ball. NBC News correspondent Pete Williams' measured and careful reporting last week was a master class in how it should be done.
Even in a business in which success is gauged by how many eyeballs you keep attached to your page or screen, it's always, always better to be right than to be first.