There's an old adage that half of all money spent on advertising is wasted, we just don't know which half. You might say the same about some of the breaking news reporting coming out of Boston last week: We knew half of it was wrong, we just didn't know which half.
On Wednesday afternoon, I was as eager as the rest of the country to find out about the search for the bombers in Boston, but I was in and out of meetings, so I followed the story on Twitter. By 2:00 in the afternoon, half my feeds were telling me that they'd arrested a suspect in the bombings (led by CNN and the Associated Press) and half were telling me not so fast (led by Pete Williams at NBC and CBS).
On Thursday morning, I woke up to the cover of the New York Post showing a photo of two young men with the headline: "Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." The two certainly had backpacks, which is what we'd heard the bombs had been placed in.
And by Thursday night, the FindBostonBombers section over on Reddit was saying that a missing Brown student was one of the two suspects whose photos authorities had released earlier in the day.
We learned by Friday morning that the police hadn't arrested anyone on Wednesday, that the two young men on the New York Post cover had nothing to do with the Boston attacks, and that the Reddit lead was a red herring.
How could we have gotten so much wrong on a story that was so important? Everyone makes mistakes, and reporting breaking news is particularly hazardous to your accuracy. I was in the control room at ABC News when we called the 2000 election wrong twice in one night, and the fact that we weren't alone was pretty cold comfort.
But in Boston it went beyond the mainstream media trying its best to keep up with a breaking news story. We were deluged with a breathless jumble of great reporting, misreporting, speculation, and exaggeration.
The Internet and social media have given the world instant news around the clock provided by just about anyone who thinks they know something. It's not just the people who aren't as careful or experienced as the trained journalists who can give us trouble; we also have even the best news organizations and best reporters feeling pressure like never before to compete with social and mobile and bloggers. Is it any wonder that mistakes are more likely than they were in past years?
But maybe that's OK, because the mistakes being made don't seem to matter quite as much any more. In the old days, when news came out only once a day from a handful of sources, if you made a mistake it stayed out there for a good long time for everyone to see before you could correct it. Now, other reporting -- either someone else's or your own -- quickly overtakes what's come before. Most people never saw what you had to say to begin with and, even if they did, they may not remember it was you or may not remember that what you're saying now is directly contrary to what you said an hour ago.
With the passing from the scene of the deliberative editorial process, maybe we also lost that quaint old practice of the formal retraction. As others have observed, CNN didn't come on the air and say that the "exclusive reporting" it had been touting for an hour on Wednesday afternoon was just plain wrong, even when it was reading a cautionary statement from law enforcement that seemed to be directed at CNN itself (a point made hilariously by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that night).
The New York Post took it one step further. Far from apologizing for plastering the pictures of the wrong two men on its cover, its editor defended what he'd done, saying that the article on the inside of the paper never came right out and said that they were suspects.
Ironically, it fell to the digital upstart Reddit to own up to its mistake. Reddit straightforwardly admitted that "some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation" and that Reddit management would "look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help, and not hinder, crisis situations."
If there's one thing we can be sure about in the reporting from Boston last week, it's this: We all have a bigger job than ever before in sorting through the torrent of conflicting reports and finding the truth. We can only hope that our fellow citizens will be doing their job as well so that, together, we can come to some shared conclusions about important events that shape our lives. There are no Walter Cronkites who can tell us that "that's the way it is."
Which isn't to the say that the source of our news doesn't matter. We still have to rely on the reporting of others simply because we can't do it ourselves. Some news sources will deserve more trust than others, first and foremost because they get it right more often than their competition.
But we'll also place our trust in organizations that show that they take their commitment to accuracy seriously even when they fall short. The Associated Press for many years has been one of the most reliable sources for news. To its credit, when it made its own mistakes in Boston, it admitted it, apologized, said what had gone wrong, and committed to doing its best to avoid the problem in the future.
At least for me, that makes a difference.