Why We Should Judge Breaking News Like Baseball

If you always want your news fast, you should expect some misses.

CNN correspondent John King talks to the audience.

CNN’s John King was widely criticized for reporting that a Boston Marathon bombing suspect was in custody on Wednesday, two days before one suspect was arrested and another was killed.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In the fast news moments after the Boston bombing, there was a lot of stupidity on Twitter. People were sending obviously Photoshopped pictures, linking to fake Twitter accounts, and otherwise passing on bad dope—including provisional reports from media sources. But when people got out of hand, the collective started to sanction those people. When photos started being posted of young anonymous men in the crowd, people sent around Richard Jewell’s obituary to warn against early condemnation of suspects. Don’t repeat what you hear on a scanner, many warned; it’s almost certain to be wrong. I knew this had reached a wide audience when I saw my fifth-grader’s text messages with his friends debating what you could and couldn’t believe on a police scanner or whether you should be listening to one at all. 

There’s been a lot of discussion about where traditional media and new media failed in their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Good. We should call out the bad ones so that standards will be higher and celebrate the good so we’ll all know where to tune in next time. But as we figure out who to listen to in the future, we should also think about a way to process these breaking news developments.

As a consumer in a breaking news environment when there are fewer filters and you’re switching from Reddit to CNN to Twitter to the New York Times, you’re becoming an editor and not a simple passive recipient. You’re watching, listening, and sharing news and stories because you want the latest as fast as possible. That’s fine, but like an editor, you’ve got to know that if you’re consistently asking for lightening fast news, you are going to get some bum information some of the time. You could disqualify the reporters who bring it to you or you could adopt a standard that fits the moment. 

The standard that fits the breaking news moment is to treat everything as provisional and accept the error inherent in the speed that you’re demanding. So when CNN, Fox, the Associated Press, and the Boston Globe report that a suspect is in custody, that’s interesting, but it’s not news until they have a name and a picture. Better yet, let’s see an official source at a microphone. And even then, remember Richard Jewell.

If those news organizations get it wrong—as they all did in Boston—then the model for appraisal should be closer to the one we use for batters in baseball. The standards are pretty clear—we know what a ball and a strike is—but we also know how to view a strikeout in context. Those news organizations struck out on naming a suspect. Some news organizations, including ABC, NBC, and CBS, laid off the wild pitch. You could condemn those who got it wrong forever or recognize, as an editor does, that when the audience is demanding up-to-the-minute news, you’re going to strike out sometimes. There are consequences: As a viewer or reader, you might rearrange your lineup and put the better hitters up top. If you’re like me, you’re in awe of those who can get it right so often under such fast pitching.

There are limits to context. Someone who gets up to the plate and consistently throws the bat down the third base line is an obvious mess. I’m speaking, of course, about the New York Post.

If you are constantly looking for news updates, whether on Twitter, CNN, or on the Web, that probably means that you want news organizations taking risks, being on a twitchy trigger. If that’s true, then you should evaluate their mistakes in this context. Also, if you are thinking about this breaking news balancing act, you’ll be less likely to go down blind allies, firing up emotions that aren’t really justified. You will have the fastest understanding of the moment—which is distinct from the fastest information. (That will help with public officials, too. The same people being cheered Friday night were wrong about the connection to the JFK Presidential Library on Monday.)

When we condemn too fast, it is the flip side of another phenomenon: We are too credulous. Slowing down the condemnation recognizes the provisional nature of the news. That might make us less likely to pass along news that, after a moment of consideration, we’ll recognize is soft and might turn out to be wrong. That might begin to walk us all back from the overemphasis on breaking news. Everyone is going to embrace your breathless report with skepticism, so don’t rush it out there so fast in the first place. (An actual sin that CNN committed before this past week was treating the smallest thing as “breaking news”—even when it’s not.)

It’s too easy to say, “Oh, they got it wrong” and condemn a reporter or a news organization forever. That’s not only unfair to the news organization that might otherwise have a pretty good batting average in the end (like the Globe), but more important, it lets you off the hook from your ongoing responsibility as skeptic and editor. There are different degrees of inaccuracy that matter in different ways at different times. Testing each new piece of information on that standard is the lesson that should come out of the Boston bombing reporting. Fortunately, it seems like some are already learning this lesson. We’re getting better as news consumers. We flock to quality, and we remind one another quickly not to go overboard. Maybe next time someone “breaks” something, we’ll wait a minute or two longer before we believe it or retweet it. It will mean we will be as sophisticated as the journalism we are demanding.

Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.