Why do journalists and news organizations exhibit such a lack of restraint when it comes to breaking news like last week’s events in Norway?
This is the question I’ve most frequently been asked in the week since the bloody attacks.
Many news organizations leapt to the conclusion that the bombing and shootings were the work of a jihadist terrorist group. The Wall Street Journal laid the blame in that direction in an editorial and then scrubbed away the evidence after it turned out to be incorrect. Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun went with the headline, “Al Qaeda Massacre: Norway’s 9/11.”
There are similar examples of early and incorrect accusations from places such as The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who tied himself in knots offering an explanation as to how his post—“Jihadists did this in Norway because they could.”—was altered from its original.
Then there was cable news. Experts were trotted out to explain why jihadists have a problem with Norway, and why this looked like the work of Al Qaeda or a similar group. Sure, some anchors or hosts inserted disclaimers along the lines of, “We don’t know if it was Al Qaeda at this point.” Then they continued to bring forth the speculation
In the vast majority of cases where incorrect information was disseminated, or when speculation turned to mistaken blame, there was no evidence or news that led to the blame. At one point a person posted on a jihadist message board to claim responsibility for the attacks, but the message was vague and lacked credibility. And then it was retracted. I recall very few news stories and reports about the retraction. In a similar vein, there have been few corrections or retractions related to the false claims about the perpetrator of the attacks in Norway.
Of those that appeared, my personal favorite came from Disinfo.com, which wrote:
This story was posted at a time when some portions of the media were reporting - incorrectly - that these acts were perpetrated by an Islamic group called “Helpers of the Global Jihad.”
That was not the case, and it’s a lesson learned that one should not believe everything one reads on the disinformation website or, indeed, any other news source, including the New York Times, the source of the story. Read as many different sources as you can and then form your own opinion is never bad advice for us or anyone on this planet.
I don’t recall which news outlet was the first to report the culprit was in fact a Norwegian Christian. But I can easily conjure the names of news organizations who got it wrong. I’m of course predisposed to focus on mistakes. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that most members of the public are more likely to remember who screwed up rather than who got the scoop.
Why then do so many of us in the press push forward with baseless speculation in the face of breaking news?
I don’t have a single, perfect answer. There are, I think, several factors at play. None of them strike me as justifiable reasons.
Below are five factors I think caused journalists to jump to speculation in this example. Though the combination may be unique to this incident, these factors are often at play in breaking news situations.
Again, these are not excuses or justifications. Mostly I would call them the motives behind the crime of speculation.
Recent History — Thanks to 9/11 and subsequent terror attacks, Western media are likely to assume a terrorist bombing or similar attack is the work of a radical Islamic group. I will say up front that I don’t know whether a tally of the number of terrorist attacks over the last decade would show the majority have been carried out by jihadists. But this is a case where perception is what matters. Western journalists likely have to fight that perception in the early minutes and hours after an attack. It can be a powerful thing to try and contain or ignore while on air.
Lack of Information — Because this happened in a country that isn’t known for terrorist activity, the reason behind the attacks wasn’t immediately clear. The identity of the person responsible also took hours to emerge. The lack of specific, credible information should have been a warning sign to the press: be wary of speculation. Hold back. In fact, it helped lead to speculation. People on cable news had to fill time. Online newsrooms need to keep offering new information and context. Everyone wanted to hear more about what was happening in Norway, yet the central question—who did it?—could not be answered. So some in the press attempted to provide just enough of a tease to keep people watching and reading and listening.
Personal Beliefs — This is valid for all of us, in that personal beliefs and convictions can impact any story we report. It’s particularly true for the pundits and experts trotted out by many of the cable news programs. Bias can and does play a role when it comes to a situation like this. Combine this with the element of Recent History and some people are not going to be able to contain themselves.
Need to Feed the Beast — It’s a recipe for disaster when you have the above situation because it inevitable combines with this factor to create an environment ripe for speculation. In today’s real-time news and information environment, the need to constantly fill air time, add updates and push a story forward leads to speculation and, too often, incorrect claims. Our need for speed, to feed the hunger out there for the latest information, becomes very risky when there simply isn’t enough credible information.
Competitive Drive —Everyone wants to beat the competition. We venerate the scoop, celebrate our firsts. And if someone at a competing news organization has a piece of information that you don’t, you’re going to try an take their nugget of info and push it one step further. It’s a vicious cycle and it plays out in every major news event. When it works, it leads to scoops and important revelations. When it doesn’t, it leads to mistakes and harm.
Any other factors I missed? Please share them in the comments.
Correction of the Week
“Our article of May 7 2011 “8st kick-boxing WPC scares off thugs” included a photograph said to be that of Richard Chadwick who was convicted of an attack on six people in Leeds, including bursting into one home and threatening to kill the occupant’s baby. The photograph was actually of Mark O’Brien who has no connection to this offence whatsoever.” — Daily Express (U.K.)