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Editorial: Learn from mistakes

The Boston Marathon bombing showed us much about the resilience of Bostonians, but it also showed us weaknesses in the way the modern mainstream media do business.

There were many news outlets that did a credible job of reporting the entire saga, sticking to official reports instead of speculation. However, there were also false reports circulated, most notably that more unexploded bombs had been found and later that a suspect was in custody.

After the embarrassment during the first 48 hours of coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, the media should have learned a lesson about relaying hearsay from bystanders. As a result, coverage of the marathon bombing was probably more accurate — or at least delivered with more caveats — than it might have been before Sandy Hook.

In Boston journalists learned another lesson, this time about quoting anonymous police sources. In both the unexploded bomb reports and the erroneous reports of an arrest, news outlets said they were being fed the information from law enforcement officials. According to CNN, it made the decision to report an arrest after speaking with “three credible sources on both local and federal levels” who all told the same story.

It’s troubling that law enforcement officials were feeding false information to news outlets, whether intentionally or accidentally, but ultimately the responsibility for the reporting lies with those who chose to broadcast it to the world.

Historically, anonymous sources were just a starting point — they would tip off a reporter about what public documents to request or what questions to ask. Occasionally, in cases like the Watergate scandal, a decision would be made that the benefit to the public and the potential danger to the source outweighed the liability of quoting someone anonymously.

But somewhere along the way major media outlets, especially in Washington, D.C., lowered the bar. Now many of them will quote an anonymous source directly about just about anything, even if it is only to give a preview of the speech the president will give in another hour.

In the past anonymous sources have helped tip off the Chronicle to situations we weren’t aware of, but we don’t publish the information unless we can quote an official source (the exception to this is when we decide to grant privacy to someone like the victim of a crime or someone telling the story of their struggle with a stigmatizing mental illness).

Often we get anonymous calls or letters from people hoping to muddy the name of public figures without being held accountable by name for their claims. If we are unable to verify that any wrongdoing actually took place, we leave it to the proper authorities to investigate.

Sometimes that policy draws criticism (most recently in an embezzlement investigation when we held off on naming the suspect until formal charges had been filed) but sometimes the claims we chose not to publish turn out not to be credible or the person is cleared of wrongdoing. We understand the power we have to destroy someone’s reputation and it is not something we take lightly.

That’s what makes the New York Post’s egregiously careless reporting on the Boston Marathon so despicable. Some of its false claims, such as saying there were 12 people killed in the bombings, did more damage to the reputation of the paper than anything else. But its decision to publish a front-page photo of two people who turned out to have nothing to do with the bombings under the headline “Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon” left two innocent young men, one a high school student, fearing for their lives as they were bombarded with hate messages on social media.

It should be noted here that it is not fair to blame the entire “mainstream media” for the actions of one newsroom. For every outlet being criticized for something like CNN’s reports of investigators seeking a “dark-skinned man” there are usually several other editors who made the call not to report the same thing — despite the risk of losing readers or viewers to competitors publishing juicier details. We have yet to see a media outlet standing by the Post (see op-eds like “The New York Post’s pathetic coverage” and “Hey New York Post editor, what were you thinking?”).

The news is never the same two days in a row and neither are the judgment calls that need to be made in the newsroom. Here’s hoping journalists continue to learn from past mistakes.

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