We were at once saddened and angered by the news this morning that Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student missing for over a month, was found dead in a river. Saddened, for the loss of life; angry, because he was falsely accused by amateur sleuths as the possible perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing.
It is with astonishing regularity that speculation and outright falsehoods are spread by the media. They are often stated as fact. They continue to be broadcast even after being debunked. Blogs – including this one, which is clearly opinion – are cited as “sources”.
What pass for journalists now is little more than a group of personalities with a LOT of air time to fill and neither the intellect nor the educational background to pull it off unscripted. Worst of all, they are fixated on being first and sacrifice accuracy for some non-existent trophy waiting for them at an imaginary finish line. There have been some notable examples over the last year, even excluding election year shenanigans:
- Last June, the Supreme Court rendered its verdict on ACA (the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”). With copies of the opinion waving in the breeze, both Fox and CNN reported their wrong interpretations.
- A few months later, AP reported that Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was real.
- Joe Paterno was declared deceased before he actually died.
- In December, it was widely reported that Ryan Lanza was responsible for the tragic shooting of two dozen students and employees of Sandy Hook Elementary. In fact, it was his brother Adam who had perpetrated the crime and was carrying Ryan’s driver’s license. Ryan, however, received death threats resulting from the news.
- In February, former LAPD officer and Navy reservist Chris Dorner went on a shooting spree. He was said to be in Torrance. No…San Diego! Guess again: Riverside! In fact, he was holed up in a cabin in the mountains, while adrenaline-infused police were shooting a 71-year-old Latina in the back.
Which brings us full circle to the Boston case. Media reported a tall, ‘dark-skinned’ individual. CNN indicated that a Saudi student had been seen running from the area and was later arrested. The New York Post pictured two spectators on its front page and labeled the photo ‘bag men’.
None of these reports was remotely accurate; but the media did manage to track down and descend upon the roommate of the student and the families of those now accused of the crime, including those in Russia.
Look! Tsarnaev is in a boat! He’s alive! He’s not moving! There’s a fire! No, there’s not! He shot out of the boat toward officers! He was unarmed!
The speculation continues with the dueling possibilities that the brothers made their money from marijuana sales and that the elder brother committed other unsolved area murders in which the victims had pot sprinkled over their corpses.
Walter Cronkite – long time journalist and news anchor – was voted “most trusted man in America”. Like today’s personalities, he regularly had to fill air time, covering live events ranging from assassinations to NASA launches to political conventions to war. He did it in a measured manner, reporting what he saw or what could be confirmed.
He was not unusual for his time. There were many others – real journalists – including but not limited to Severeid, Chancellor, Kalb, Moyers, Wallace, Rather, Brinkley… As reporters, they investigated. They researched. They cited sources and didn’t broadcast until at least two had confirmed what the reporters thought they knew.
This is what recent events should teach us: that, in some things, the old ways are better. News anchors and those who work with them are referred to as reporters because they are expected to report the news – not to be the news and certainly not to make it up. To achieve “journalistic integrity,” correct should be valued over first; knowing should be preferable to speculation; justice is more important than accusation; and fact supersedes fiction.
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