Why you should take reports from the scene of a massacre with a grain of salt.

Media criticism.
Dec. 3 2008 5:47 PM

The Fog of Breaking News

Why you should take reports from the scene of a massacre with a grain of salt.

Indian policemen at the Chattrapati Shivaji Railway terminus. Click image to expand.
Indian policemen at the Chattrapati Shivaji Railway terminus

Fast-breaking news is usually served broken.

I offer that insight as an observation, not a criticism. As one who has scribbled conflicting eyewitness accounts from a fast-moving story in my reporter's notebook, I have nothing but gratitude and sympathy for the boots on the ground who produce the hot dispatches readers crave—even if many of those hot dispatches turn out to be crap.


The latest example of crap masquerading as authoritative news comes to us from the pens and microphones of the reporters covering the Mumbai massacre: Reading the first wave of Mumbai stories against the second reveals how rough the first rough draft of history can be. Respected, major media outlets produced contradictory accounts of the carnage and its aftermath.

It would be easy to blame the opening inaccuracies on the discombobulating nature of the terrorist assault, or to accuse a naïve Indian press of leading the Western press astray, or to damn Indian government officials for steering reporters wrong. But it ain't so. Breaking news—especially complex breaking news—has always defied the best reporters' attempts to get the story both first and right.

For instance, immediately following the 9/11 attacks, all sorts of bunk about the identities of hijackers, explosives on the George Washington Bridge, and a car bombing at the State Department turned up in the Boston Globe, on CNN, on the New York Times Web site, and on CBS. The press foisted similarly shaky stories onto their clientele when reporting the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. As Slate contributor David Greenberg catalogs in his book Nixon's Shadow, the press made serious errors in Watergate coverage that were never corrected.

Should reporters publish only when they've nailed the story six ways to Sunday? Not to endorse journalistic malpractice, but as long as they don't intend to deceive and believe what they publish, I'd rather read their imperfect reports from the scene of breaking news than wait for a book on the subject. "Journalism in lieu of dissertation," to use Edgar Allan Poe's phrase, is the light artillery we can use now.

That said, the press could do a better job of cleaning up after the fact by acknowledging that their frantic chasing of the story also resulted in the publication of some … crap. (As long as we're on the subject of how the press should clean up behind itself, see former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent's 2004 column about "rowbacks.")

At the very least, newspapers and networks could routinely warn readers of the provisional nature of their hot, breaking reports and advise all to keep pinches of salt handy. Reporter Rhys Blakely of the Times of London did just that in his Dec. 2 Mumbai story, indicating why so many contradictory statements were coming out of the interrogations of captured terrorist Azam Amir Kasab. Blakely writes:

It is thought that as many as 15 Indian officials are sitting in on the militant's interrogation, and many are leaking their interpretations of his responses to the media.

So, with that throat-clearing completed, here's an assortment of misinformation, quarreling facts, and bunk published by the world press about the Mumbai rampage. (Note: the spelling of the Kasab's name varies from publication to publication.)