As a runner who had friends at the Boston Marathon, I followed the news relating to the event with great interest and concern. Like many others, I was struck by the moral and critical defects in some of the coverage.
Not surprisingly, the New York Post led the way in terms of defective coverage. The Post started off by getting the death toll wrong and then proceeded to link a Saudi national to the bombing. The Post then topped it off by putting two innocent people on the cover with a heading (“bag men”) that clearly implied they were involved.
While other folks in the media did not reach the depths explored by the Post, the coverage of the event was widely marked with factual inaccuracies and unfounded speculation. While it is reasonable to forgive the folks in the media for not having all the facts when a story is evolving, it is also reasonable for the folks to use proper diligence and critical methods to assess the alleged facts before committing to them. It is also reasonable to expect the alleged professionals to be clear when they are just speculating and to restrain such speculation to its proper scope.
I do understand why the media folks often engage in speculation and hasty judgments. News is a for-profit business and they need to keep people watching the news so that they are watching the advertising between the stories. If a media person honestly reports that they do not have the facts and refuses to engage in unfounded speculation, then people will tend to turn to other media sources in the hopes of getting the facts. If these sources do not have the facts, they obviously need to choose between the ethical course of being clear about the lack of facts or engage in unfounded speculation and unwarranted judgments. Obviously, the speculation and judgments have a better chance of keeping the audience’s attention. After all, if one source reports that the suspects are not known and another claims that a Saudi national is a suspect, people will turn to the sources making the claim about the suspect-even if the claim is completely unfounded.
While this approach does make some sense from a business perspective, it can obviously be rather harmful. In the case of the two innocent people who appeared on the Post’s cover, they have to worry about being harassed or harmed by people who bought what the Post was selling. There is also the concern that such misleading reporting can impeded investigations by leading the public to think that the suspects have been found and hence there is no need to keep looking. There is also the ethical concern regarding making claims when a person knows that they are not properly grounded in evidence.
In addition to the defects, I was also struck by the volume of empty chatter, such as the repeated statements of the very obvious and the vague filler comments. I do get why they talking heads have to do this-they need to stay on the big story to keep people watching, but when they have no actual facts to report and run out of unfounded speculation, they still have time to fill. To fill this time, they typically take the easiest route-empty chatter. Sometimes, as I saw on CNN, they even run out of empty chatter-the image of John King standing with two people desperately checking their phones for something to say nicely exemplifies this situation.
While the media folks could do the obvious and switch to another story that involves actual facts, that creates the risk of losing the audience. Presumably CNN believed that showing people standing around would keep the audience better than going to another story. There is probably also the concern of backlash-that going to another story might create the impression that the media folks do not care enough about the big story to remain focused on it even when they have not a damn meaningful thing to say.