This was a topic I was going to write anyway, but now I have an example to use with it. As so often happens in the aftermath of tragedy, false reports fly with abandon. Today, CNN reported that a suspect in the Boston Marathon attack was arrested. This same story was reposted by news outlets large and small, shared across Twitter and Facebook, and then recanted by CNN, hours later. Chartgirl has a great chart (of course) of the cluster-expletive and who posted what, if you want a visual analysis. In my second, longer post on the tragedy, I mentioned two words: “patience” and “prudence.” We need patience that the facts will shake out, and prudence in what we do and say until then.
In the endless race to be first that typifies media today, patience and prudence are oft ignored to varying degrees. While CNN’s particular rush to post may be egregious, the New York Post’s wildly inaccurate excuse for journalism in the aftermath is much worse. Once again, The Onion makes the point better than anyone else could. This occurs because news publishing on the web is so driven by the need for page views. Patient and prudent reporting that brings hard, verified facts is usually not rewarded by lots of clicks, lots of shares, and lots of ad revenue. As useful of a service as CNN and other major news networks can be, don’t forget that they are companies that work to serve their own bottom line before they serve us. It’s why even websites that don’t focus on current events news stories were posting about the attack.
On Twitter and App.net, I’ve read comments that wistfully recall the days when you had to wait a day to find out what happened in the newspapers. While the nature of that medium made a certain degree of patience a necessity for publishers and readers alike, don’t get the illusion that prudence is a necessary function of that as reports from the Titanic, over a hundred years ago show. The days of Yellow Journalism aren’t that far behind us. In fact, they never truly ended, and probably never will. Let’s not kid ourselves. As long as a sensational headline guarantees that you will move whatever commoditized thing makes you money, physical papers or ad impressions, it is in the financial best interest of media organizations to post first and fast, and to hell with accuracy.
When my Father was in the Army during Vietnam—stationed, thankfully, in Germany—he would read three newspapers: an English-language German newspaper, an American newspaper, and The Stars and Stripes. He only accepted as truth the things all three papers agreed upon. The days when we can do that aren’t over, but when everyone is getting their news from everybody else in what may be the largest game of Whisper Down the Lane the world’s ever seen.  You’d need a much, much larger pool of news sources to compare, and there isn’t much time for that, though there’s a potential startup company idea in there for someone. [^2]
It’s now the job of us as news and media consumers to do the heavy lifting of evaluating a story and being choosy about our sources. Blind trust in the sources of our information has never been a good idea, but now we have enough control over what we see that we don’t need to place our trust in any one source. Because of this, more than ever, we need to be patient in trusting that the real facts will come, and we need to be prudent what we consume. Media literacy isn’t being taught in schools, but it’s becoming an necessity. In the meantime, the readers, and the publishers, are all flying by the seat of their pants.