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Apr 18 / King Kaufman

Being first is not nearly as important as being right

The Associated Press has a pretty good roundup of the “media frenzy” that took place Wednesday as reports circulated that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombing.

CNN, Fox News Channel and the Boston Globe said that a suspect in Monday’s bombing had been arrested. The Associated Press said a suspect had been taken into custody. Within an hour, the FBI denied that a suspect had been captured, leading the three news organizations that had reported the arrest to back down from those claims.

The AP, while reporting the federal denial, said that its original source was standing by its claim that a suspect had been taken into custody. The news cooperative said its source was a law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity.

ABC, CBS and NBC all broke into their regular programming to report progress in the case, but did not say there was an arrest or someone brought into custody.

The frantic afternoon presented another example of news organizations being embarrassed by a race to report information under intense competitive pressure.

Putting speed ahead of accuracy is a dangerous game. Any benefit gained from being the first to report something that everyone is going to have at some point is outweighed, I think, by the damage done when you’re wrong.

I did a search for “CNN” on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, and in a two-minute span saw 17 tweets specifically lambasting the network—a corporate partner of Bleacher Report—for its report that a suspect had been arrested. That didn’t include people criticizing CNN on general terms, or in languages I can’t read. Had CNN’s report panned out, would a similar volume of tweets have flooded in praising the network for being first?

I think not. What happens if you get it right is that, over time, readers, viewers and users trust you and make you a go-to source when important news is breaking. They do that because you’re right, not because you’re first.

This blog’s posts on verification, on attribution and on Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know and tell us how you know it. That’s how you can be both fast and right.