On Wednesday afternoon, as the media were having a nervous breakdown over the bombing suspect who was/was not in custody, I received a private message over Twitter from a friend who’s a longtime newspaper reporter:
They were saying they had multiple sources. You know what the problem is, they don’t name their sources. If you had no anonymous sources, then whoever gave them the information would be on the hook. Only in extreme cases do we use anonymous sources!
Leaving aside the obvious fact that this really is an extreme case, my friend is exactly right. Every time there’s a huge breaking news story, it seems, news organizations report developments that turn out to be wrong — and that were based on anonymous law-enforcement sources.
Maybe that could be justified a generation ago, when such leaks were used to develop reliable stories. But now the pressure to publish/broadcast/tweet immediately is so overwhelming that a bombshell from an anonymous source leads not to more reporting but, rather, to an immediate, breathless update.
CNN got most of the attention on Wednesday, and, as a repeat offender, it really ought to be more careful. The Associated Press got it wrong, too, and that matters because editors generally don’t double-check the AP — they’re paying for the service, after all, and the AP is treated as an extension of their own newsrooms.
The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and local TV and radio stations got it wrong, too. The Herald has a useful timeline on page 4 today. I couldn’t find it on the paper’s website, but I’ll add a link if someone has it.
So was the source or sources normally reliable, which is the argument we’re hearing from some of those who got burned? I think that’s the wrong question. It’s the reliance on anonymous sources that’s the problem, not whether those sources were right or wrong. That may be the way it’s always been done. But if Wednesday didn’t prove that there’s something wrong with the old model, then what will?
Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple has a good take on what happened Wednesday, including the full text of the FBI smackdown. At Poynter, Andrew Beaujon and Mallary Jean Tenore put together a Storify that tracks how the initial news and the embarrassing walkback played out on Twitter.