CNN should be cautious in breaking “news”

UPDATE

Some links of interest:

END UPDATE

Balloon Boy’s Transfixing Effect On The Media

As the so-called “Balloon Boy” saga now unfolds as a confirmed hoax, I’m struck by the breaking news text messages I received from CNN Thursday when the network — and let’s be fair, much of the world — thought 6-year-old Falcon Heene was thousands of feet above Colorado in a flying balloon.

V.CNN BREAKING A 6-year-old climbed into a balloon-like experimental aircraft built by his parents and floated into the Colorado sky.

I noted that much of the world probably thought, too, that Falcon was in the balloon, but I suggest that the notion was only furthered by the nonstop coverage by networks like CNN. That’s not really my point, though.

CNN’s original text message didn’t use any phrases like “reportedly,” “apparently,” “thought to be,” or even “likely.” It stated the situation as fact.

When the craft later touched down in a field miles from the Heene’s home, CNN sent out this message:

V.CNN BREAKING A balloon-like experimental aircraft thought be [sic] carrying a 6-year-old Colorado boy has landed.

Here, they brought in (or attempted to, excusing their mistake) the phrase “thought to be.”

In examining CNN’s text messages, I think it’s important also to take a look at some of CNN’s other recent SMS’s. Most have been about things that can plainly be seen or do not necessarily need source verification — the Olympics going to Rio de Janeiro, NASA crashing a spacecraft into the moon, etc.

But other times, CNN provided appropriate attribution:

V.CNN BREAKING At least 1,100 peopled have died in Indonesia after two large earthquakes in as many days, U.N. humanitarian chief says.

This method should be used over their “Balloon Boy” approach, if for no other reason than to protect their own necks. If, after further verification, it turns out that the number was actually 4,000 people, CNN can then say, “Well, this is what an official source with knowledge of the situation was telling us.” But in the first method, CNN is providing the information as a statement of fact. The boy has floated into the Colorado sky.

You’ll remember that CNN received criticism for jumping the gun (no pun intended) when they erroneously reported that shots had been fired by the Coast Guard on the Potomac, when in fact the entire situation was a training exercise.

There, too, CNN began reporting by saying that, “Coast Guard fires 10 rounds at boat on Potomac River.” All it would have taken to be safe in that situation would have been to add in “reportedly” before “fires.”

Several other media outlets overdid their coverage of the “Balloon Boy” incident, and may have equally misstated the facts. I only receive CNN’s text messages and e-mails, though, so I only have a hard record of what they released. In researching this post, I did find similar overstatements:

  • The Associated Press’ raw video on YouTube reported that a boy, “climbed into a hot-air balloon aircraft and floated away.”
  • Fox News reported: “6-year-old boy trapped alone inside balloon.”
  • msnbc.com’s live feed from 9News in Denver said, “Homemade aircraft floats away with boy.”

Most of the networks updated their information eventually when word came in that Falcon was not on the craft, but that doesn’t change the fact that they reported news that simply was not true.

I use CNN as the main example because I know of at least one specific situation where they’ve misreported news before (see the Coast Guard story). But no doubt here many news outlets were too quick to report something that eventually turned out to be false.

News organizations need to be careful not to take reports of news at face value, if not to protect viewers and readers from inaccurate information, then to protect themselves from embarrassment.

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