Given the rapid-fire way information is thrown at us from any and every direction today there are bound to be a few factual mistakes made in news reporting. However, when we think of mistakes we may think of a local news channel picking up a fake story online. We don’t necessarily expect a small newsteam with a small budget to have all the manpower or resources to get all the facts right all the time and we’re usually ready to forgive. However, lately there’s been a disturbing trend of major news networks picking up fake or completely inaccurate stories and running with them all for the sake of being able to say “we got it first”, regardless of the damage they may have done.
Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated HBO series The Newsroom has quickly picked up on this troublesome and, to be quite frank, unacceptably foolish trend with aplomb by tackling the now infamous fumbling done by major news networks during the Boston Marathon bombing. As a quick refresher: notorious internet forum Reddit decided to try to crack the case on who the mysterious men (who were assumed to be the bombers) were in the security videos that officials released. As it turns out, Reddit had fingered the wrong man. But in their rush to have the latest news, many outlets disregarded fact checking, or even considering the source, and went ahead and aired the name and face of a completely innocent man, tearing his life apart in the process. The man was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and was the victim of overzealous individuals and news organizations competing to be the first to break the story of the moment.
The episode, which aired on Sunday as the premiere of season three marked a tragic and terrifying moment in American history - a moment that was made all that much worse at the time by rampant speculation and falsities in the media. It was the first post-social media terror crisis the American public was subjected to and as more and more people posted their experiences, news outlets relied on these unverified accounts as fact. In the episode social media plays a role as well in identifying the wrongly named suspect and his family, who is immediately attacked with death threats. The target of much of Sorkin’s scorn was CNN’s John King, who infamously reported that there had been an arrest when there hadn’t been, leading to every other major news organization reporting it as fact as well.
Leading the pack of false reports during the Boston Marathon coverage was ABC News, which has a history of looking to the internet’s not-so-trustworthy rumor mill for story leads in times of crisis. In a different and particularly appalling example, during the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings in 2012, ABC’s Brian Ross attempted to connect the shooter, Jim Holmes, with the Tea Party due to the fact that there was another Jim Holmes who lived in the city who was a member of the Tea Party. That’s literally the only information he was able to provide, but the fact that an anchor on a respected network made the connection gave it legitimacy to viewers.
This wasn’t even Ross’ first time wrongly fingering a suspect either. Back in December of 2009 after the attempted “Underwear Bombing” of a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit he named two prisoners, who were released from Guantanamo Bay, as the bombers. The only problem was that not only was one of their names wrong, but the man in question was in the custody of the Saudi government since February of that year.
He’s not alone in his blundering at ABC - their trademark 20/20 program has long been the subject of scrutiny for sensationalizing stories, stating inaccurate facts, and targeting the wrong people. There have been multiple examples of courts awarding victims money from ABC News after 20/20 made false claims about them, some cases dating back over 20 years. In fact, in 2000 ABC news admitted that their then-reporter John Stossel completely fabricated lab tests and cited them as examples on air. Only when threatened with a lawsuit did the company fess up, but Stossel got to keep his job and his producer was only suspended for a month. Stossel and ABC also used video of pastor Fredrick Price out of context to make it appear he was boasting to his congregation about his massive wealth when, in reality, he was speaking as a fictionalized third party during a sermon about greed. Price sued Stossel for defamation due to the implications of theft from the church which were created by using the warped and out of context footage. The two parties eventually settled but not after Stossel and ABC had to publicly state that they had in fact used his words out of context to sensationalize and create a story out of nothing.
Hot on Stossel's tail as the problem child of 20/20 is reporter Chris Cuomo, who is likely to be found guilty of libel for a 2012 sensationalized “expose” on the harms of internet dating. Never mind that many of the facts were magnified and over exaggerated to make the story more entertaining, or that he ruined a man’s good name in the process, Cuomo picked up a sweet new gig at CNN in the meantime, who have their own history of less than accurate reporting.