Bombings Coverage Highlights Broadcast-Cable Divide

Networks’ special reports prove less vulnerable to errors

The viability of broadcast news in
today’s 24/7, Twitter-driven news cycle
is often debated. But last week, as every
TV news organization was racing to report developments
in the case of the Boston Marathon
bombings, the networks found sometimes it
pays off to have to wait a beat to go on the air.

While a shootout that left one suspect dead
early on April 19 had both cable and broadcast
networks taking a cautious tone in their
reporting, earlier in the week on April 17,
CNN and Fox News found themselves retracting
initial claims on-air that a suspect had
been arrested. ABC, NBC and CBS managed
to stay out of that fray in the special reports
they produced the same day.

Then, ABC reported that an arrest “may be
imminent,” while CBS noted that a possible
suspect had been identified. NBC News—and
by extension MSNBC, which shares information
in breaking news situations—received
praise for justice correspondent Pete Williams’
cautious reporting; Williams said definitively
that no arrest had been made even as others
were reporting the opposite.

0422 Programming chart

“We understand the new media environment,
but that doesn’t change our commitment to the
audience and the fact that credibility is important
with an audience,” said Antoine Sanfuentes,
senior VP at NBC News. “So despite the hypercharged
environment, if you will, it’s important
that we maintain our balance, that we be measured,
that we be careful.
And it’s always important
that we get it right rather
than to be first.”

The broadcast-cable
divide was underscored
by the fact that CNN and
Fox News also initially
got the Supreme Court
decision on the Affordable Care Act wrong last
June as a result of hasty reporting. This time,
CNN especially was in the spotlight because its
incorrect early claim of an arrest in Boston came
as part of the biggest news story to break under
the helm of new president Jeff Zucker.

“CNN had three credible sources on both
local and federal levels. Based on this
information, we reported our findings.
As soon as our sources came to us with
new information, we adjusted our reporting,”
a network representative said
in a statement. Fox News did not respond
to a request for comment.

Univision, though it had produced
a four-hour special report on April 15
like the English-language broadcasters,
decided not to break into programming
with news of a possible suspect—as others did—when it couldn’t
confirm the information independently. Patsy
Loris, Univision senior director of news, was
pleased with her decision, but understood
why mistakes happened elsewhere.

“Any terrorist attack is something people want
to know about, and people are tuning in more
than usual,” Loris said. “Everybody is trying to
keep people informed, not to be left out of the
loop as if we were not following the story.”

Loris also noted that while cable news networks
are in a constant position of filling airtime,
broadcast networks must go through a
process of corporate approval to break into
scheduled programming.

“They put on the air everything and whatever’s
new,” Loris said of the cable news nets.
“We take into consideration how important it is,
what the impact is to our audience, how does it
impact our programming grid too.”

ABC News, which was caught in a firestorm
last summer when Brian Ross incorrectly linked
Aurora movie theater shooting suspect James
Holmes to the Tea Party, said it was mindful of
past tragedies in its treatment of speculation.

“We learn from every one of them,” said Marc
Burstein, executive producer of special events at
ABC News. “We’ve all learned over the years it
is much better to withhold information—you
get a lot of unreportable information, you hear a
lot of rumors. We make a point of not reporting
that until we can confirm it.”

In an April 17 special report, Ross did say
ABC’s affiliate station in Boston was reporting
an arrest had been made but that ABC News
had not been able to confirm it—a disclosure
that went with the transparency news execs were
stressing last week in a breaking news situation.

“We don’t go just by sources—[we] either go
by NBC News, and if AP is reporting something,
we will say that NBC News has not confirmed,”
said MSNBC president Phil Griffin, distancing
his team from rivals’ missteps. “A lot of news
orgs, they want to be first so much that often
they will go with something that hasn’t been appropriately
sourced. We’re not in that game. We
want to get the information as quickly as possible,
but it doesn’t do anybody any good to say
something that you have to retract.”

E-mail comments to and follow her
on Twitter: @andreamorabito