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Media Criticism: The birth of a thousand conspiracy theories

Maybe one good thing that could come out of the Boston Marathon bombing is a reevaluation of the Fourth Estate. I’m probably being overly optimistic, because it would require the national media to acknowledge they aren’t achieving their purpose of contributing to an informed populace. The amount of flubbed reporting over the last three days has been egregious.

When I finally made the fool decision to walk away from the Internet and turn on cable news Monday it was shortly after 1 p.m. PST. I spent a little bit of time on each of the three networks and was actually surprised to find MSNBC providing the best coverage. Karen Finney, filling in for Martin Bashir, was covering the situation as a straight anchor. She let the journalists on the ground provide the information. She was careful not to join any speculation being presented by guests. She let the terror experts explain and asked clarifying questions. That straight forward reporting is what I personally crave during a crisis and it wasn’t happening on Fox or CNN.

However, it all fell apart when Chris Matthews came on the air. Matthews had followed the Boston police briefing where the police commissioner was unhelpful when it came to answering questions about the JFK Library. He said it was being investigated as a potentially related incident. He never said outright that it was definitely related. His statement also came an hour after the Dorchester Reporter had talked to the library’s director who said it was only a small mechanical fire (highlighting the continued value of local newspapers). With so much ambiguity and conflicting reports Matthews never should have started on a tear about “the symbolism” of an attack on the library.

While I detest speculative reporting during a crisis I know there’s very little helping it. If a 24-hour news station is going to abandon planned reporting on anything else happening in the world and focus on one thing non-stop – pundits are going to speculate.  If Matthews couldn’t help himself and needed to rant about an unverified event he could have at least taken the time to make it clear to his viewers that there were conflicting reports about the cause of the fire. “The commissioner seemed to suggest the library was also bombed, but we’re still receiving conflicting reports, if it does turn out that the library was bombed what do you think that means regarding the symbolism of this attack?”

I turned the television off and went for a walk.

Moments like this have continued over the last three days. The Atlantic has an excellent round-up and The Onion published a mock New York Post editorial that sums up the current state of crisis reporting nicely.  The reporting has been so sloppy that the Federal Bureau of Investigations has issued a statement that could have come from the office of a Journalism 101 Professor: “Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

It’ll be interesting to see how many conspiracy theories are born from the false reports. Nothing fuels conspiracy nuts more than when they think the government is forcing the media to change facts.

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