April 23, 2013

(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

The Associated Press last Wednesday issued a mistaken report about the status of the investigation of the Boston bombings. It said that a suspect was in custody pursuant to the investigation and was expected to surface at a Boston courthouse. That bombshell rested on a single anonymous source.

A source that, as we all know, was wrong.

If the misstep damaged the public’s confidence in the AP, the wire service’s internal reaction should push that needle upward again. Look at what the AP’s editorial brass has done in the aftermath. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone has reported, a pair of memos for AP staff dissected the disaster:

We took a shellacking, a deserved one, for reporting that a suspect was in custody when, as the hours passed, that information began to look wobbly. We did carry strong denials from named sources, but we got too caught up in telling readers precisely who-said-what and what had and had not happened. Once we were no longer certain of what we had reported we should have told our audiences that in a clear way. And moved a correction more quickly than we did.

That’s from AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, who also wrote: “We all need to do better and we will.” The memos deliver a great many other reasons to trust that the AP has done everything possible to minimize the chances of a single-source relapse of bogosity. For example, these words issued from Deputy Managing Editor for Standards Tom Kent:

The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.

Now for CNN, which mistakenly reported an arrest in the case. For reasons that the New York Times’s David Carr explained, breaking-news screwups gut the identity of the 24-7 channel. So what sort of internal guidance has come to CNN reporters from their bosses?

A congratulatory note from CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. It reads, in part:

For journalists like each of us, these are the times that define what we do and why we do it. All of you, across every division of CNN Worldwide, have done exceptional work. And when we made a mistake, we moved quickly to acknowledge it and correct it. It was important to see CNN, CNN.com, HLN and CNNI all shine this week, often with different stories and different approaches that make each of their roles clear.

Zucker was facing a dicey task — how to thank everyone for their hard work while at the same conceding the gravity of the bogus arrest story. One CNN source called his memo “cringeworthy nonetheless.”

When asked whether the network was undertaking an AP-style internal review, a CNN spokesperson responded:

Transparency has been critical to us throughout our reporting – and we corrected our mistake within an hour on the air. That said, we have instituted additional checks and balances to our editorial processes as part of an ongoing internal review.

Publishing that “ongoing internal review” would help the network with its ongoing external audience.

Finally, Fox News, another guilty party on the Boston-suspect front. What’s it doing about its role in all of this? An e-mail on that matter fetched no response, a common experience for the Erik Wemple Blog vis-a-vis Fox News.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.