Public Editor

April 22, 2013

Don’t disseminate bad info

When false information breaks fast in social media, journalists shouldn‘t compound the error by repeating it.

Last week in the wake of all the sketchy “information” emerging during the search for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, I wrote: “I’ve long believed nobody really cares which source gets it first, but readers sure do remember which ones got it wrong.”

Well, reader Tim Shipley had a slightly different point of view, and I think he’s spot on:

I think you’re close. I think you’re right that people don’t care who is first. (But boy, the news sources sure think they do!) But I think they quickly forget which source was wrong. What they remember is the information that was wrong, and they continue to think it’s correct. News sources never, that I can remember, make a big a headline correcting their original misinformation. They just make a new big headline with the new information. Meanwhile, people suffer damage to reputations, and sometimes even physical attacks.

Witness the high school student whose name was picked up from a police scanner as a “suspect.” The kid is afraid to leave his house!

What is a news source’s responsibility when this happens? It seems that a 1 or 2 line “correction” buried on an inside page somewhere really doesn’t help.

The question of how to correct such a fundamental error is individual to the source, but I agree that if it were something huge, a correction on Page A2 or A3 doesn’t carry anything near the same weight as a front-page story or photo.

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