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.
“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.”
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