Friday, April 19, 2013

If your source isn't credible, shut the hell up

The movie "All the President's Men" should be required viewing for anyone in the news business. (Or, what a concept, read the book.) It shows how information needs to be backed up; if not by someone who will go on the record, but by sources who are rock solid. Even then, sources might have their own agenda.

This week we've gotten a re-run of the Newtown shooting story in Boston. During the past few days the misinformation has gotten out of hand. At first thirteen people died. Apparently ten miraculously rose from the dead since Monday. Police made an arrest, then they didn't. It got so bad that the FBI, it what was seemingly an unprecedented move, actually called out the media for irresponsible reporting in this statement:

"Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting."

Once again, the race to be first rather than right left the business with an omelet on its face. But this time it got so bad that the feds actually had to call reporters to the principal's office.

Like any reporter, I've used unnamed sources in stories. But I only relied on those that were rock solid. Often sources might have an agenda, might want to send you down the wrong path, or simply don't like you and want to make you look stupid.

In the case of this story, many reporters are relying on sources they met ten minutes ago.

The key phrase in the FBI statement is the one regarding "unintended consequences." Here's what that means: If you released a story that said the bombers had been arrested, some guy felt safe and went outside, and was killed by the suspects who were still at large, that would be the result of your incompetent reporting.

I realize many of you are under pressure to get the facts out on social media before they hit the air, but please be careful. When using a source... consider the source.

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