After Boston, looking for solutions to mounting media confusion

One of the driving principles in the live and late-breaking world of TV news is to just keep moving on. Don't dwell too long on yesterday's mistakes, or you'll miss today's big story.

But the mistakes made by social media and cable TV after the Boston Marathon bombings have continued reverberating with the discovery last week of the body of a young man falsely accused of being a suspect. We saw similar patterns after the Newtown shooting, and we need to look at this trend before the media get any further out of control.

After watching CNN go from reporting false information to losing its nerve and offering almost no information by the time the second bombing suspect was captured, it was clear to me that we had reached a moment of transition away from the dominance of cable TV as the go-to place on breaking stories. One question is whether there's a way for cable to adapt to the changing media environment and stay in the game as one of the power players.

But the most pressing reason for exploring media performance in Boston is the kind of damage that has once again been inflicted on the innocent in the name of instant information. The shift in media power and the damage being done each time our shaky information ecosystem gets stressed are related.

Much has been said and written about Rupert Murdoch's "New York Post" putting the images of two innocent young men on the cover of the tabloid in such a way that readers might think they were responsible for the bombs in Boston. And then, once it was clear that they weren't the bombers, Murdoch and his editor-in-chief, Col Allen, refused to apologize. But what do you expect from Murdoch and his kind of journalism anyway?

Even more has been written and said about CNN's John King reporting that a suspect had been arrested when, in fact, one hadn't at the time. Compounding the error exponentially, King described the suspect as "dark-skinned." King accepted responsibility for his mistakes on Twitter and in an interview with Washington radio station WTOP last week.

Fox News also reported the arrest — as did AP and the Boston Globe. All cited sources just as King and CNN did. But we have no way of further checking, because the sources were all unnamed, which further erodes credibility and confuses those looking for information they can trust.

But by far the most troubling and least discussed aspect of bad Boston coverage is what happened on reddit where crowd-sourcing turned to a witch hunt with users deciding they were going to play at being detectives by sharing their uninformed thoughts on who was responsible for the bombing.

The online lynch mob fingered several innocent people based on perceived similarities to suspects shown in photos released by the FBI. One of the innocents was Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student who had gone missing in March. Tripathi was seen by some reddit users to resemble Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was captured by police.

The parents of Tripathi were so distressed by what was being said on reddit that they issued a statement insisting on the innocence of their son.

Think of that: The parents aren't suffering enough because their son is missing. Now, they have fools on reddit saying he's a killer.

Tripathi's body was found Tuesday.

Reddit is among the sites built on user-generated content — a business model favored over journalism sites where you actually have to pay media workers who are trained to gather and process information.

Erik Martin, reddit's general manager, posted an apology on the site Tuesday.

"… Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties," Martin wrote. "The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened."

How does he know "millions of people on reddit round the world deeply regret" it? And what is "noble" about posting such speculation anyway?

"We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Tripathi, as have various users and moderators," Martin continued. "We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure… Especially when the stakes are high we must strive to show good judgement (sic) and solidarity."

There's no place for the kind of rampant speculation reddit engaged in. But for journalists, there may be ways to responsibly explore the deluge of sometimes-unverified information that comes out of a breaking-news event.

One news outlet that showed good judgment in Boston was National Public Radio, which did not report an arrest when CNN, AP and others did. NPR sent member stations a notice at the time explaining that it knew of the reports and the stations' eagerness to have something from NPR on them, but was holding off until it could confirm independently.

"Competitive pressure is not new, and how newsrooms choose to respond to that competition and play to it, against or with it, has always been their choice," says Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news at NPR.

"What has changed is that social media now puts that competition on display publicly in a way that is much more visible than it ever was …I think that kind of transparency is good for the business, because just as scientists say the process of discovery is a process, the process of news-gathering is a process."

But what about the bad information that's widely disseminated and the people who might be hurt when such reports are broadcast or published during that process, thanks to the instantaneous nature of new media?

Stencel believes the seeds of a solution might lie in the new media themselves — at least during this period of transformation.

"The one thing that's easier to do online and even [through] social media than it is on-air or in print is to look at those reports and acknowledge them in a way that couches them appropriately and explains where we are in the process of news-gathering much more openly," he says.

"We in our newsroom are now talking about how to have that conversation with our audience. We know the audience is getting information from a lot of sources. … So there's a value to the news organization that's willing to say, 'We see this report, too, and here's what we think about that report. Here's what our reporting on that report says.'"

Stencel thinks breaking-news blogs — such as NPR's "The Two Way"— might be the right kind of forum.

City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, who last week described on his BuzzMachine blog how just such a conversation between a media outlet and its audience could take place, even offered a title for it: "Here's what you should know about what you're hearing elsewhere."

Offering examples of how it could have been used in Boston, he wrote, "You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made, so you should doubt that even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

"I believe it's totally possible," Jarvis said Friday. "I think it's a pretty straightforward way to address the problem of misinformation. It's less likely for print, because it's for things that are changing rapidly. But I can imagine a TV show or website simply saying, 'We know you are hearing these things elsewhere. Here's what you ought to know about it.' It's as simple as that. Really."

The question is why no one's doing it yet.