Poor Twitter. Once again, the platform is getting all the blame for the spread of misinformation during today's breaking news event, when, really, the media facilitated the spread of false reports way before Twitter existed. In fact, all the previous incarnations of news dissemination — radio, TV, and paper — have distributed erroneous facts during major events. That's the nature of breaking news: It's messy, complicated, and confusing. That doesn't excuse reporters for tweeting erroneous details. But, let's blame the right thing here: It's not Twitter, it's reporters.
Here's a look back at three major news events of the last century or so.
The Time TV Got It Wrong: 9/11 Edition
Back in 2001, the old TV media guard got plenty of details wrong in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. HyperVocal has a rundown of some significant mess-ups, many of which came via the TV news media. For example, here's NBC news reporting that a bomb went off at the Pentagon:
At the time the smoke and acrid smell led D.C.-based reporter Jim Miklaszewski to believe the reports. Of course, now we know that an airplane had crashed into the side of the Pentagon. Similarly, later in the day, CNN reported an explosion on Capitol Hill, which turned out to be false. Still, Hill staffers had to evacuate the building.
The Time Radio Got it Wrong: JFK Assassination Edition
Dallas Radio station KLIF went back and forth in its reporting of John F. Kennedy's assassination, declaring him both in critical condition and dead throughout the broadcast. At one point, a congressman says he saw Kennedy's lips moving at a normal rate of speed en route to hospital; later, they have another report saying that he arrived at the hospital dead. Around 53:30 the radio report says that "rumors ran rampant" that Vice President Lyndon Johnson had also been shot. In addition, NBC radio made the first unofficial announcement of Kennedy's death without an official report, pulling from the Associate Press.
According to ReelRadio.com, "an erroneous report of a secret service agent is aired" at 1:38 p.m. CST. Around 55 minutes and 22 seconds into the broadcast the newscaster says: "There is also indication that more than one man is involved in the attack," which certainly sounds like the confusion over suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.
"Efforts are being made to elucidate certain mysterious circumstances attending the loss of the Titanic, chief among which are the bogus dispatches last Monday stating that the liner was proceeding under her own steam to Halifax," began an April 1912 article in The New York Times, again via HyperVocal. Fake telegraphs circulated suggesting that the Titanic had not indeed sunk. The situation sounds a lot like what happens today, just substitute "telegraphists" for tweeters: "Unfortunately, America is full of amateur wireless telegraphists who have put up their own installations. Some of these men are held for the bogus messages," The Times wrote. As we now know, the Titanic sunk.
And then, of course, there was Dewey Defeats Truman, the inaccurate Chicago Tribune headline following the 1948 election:
(Photo of a jubilant President Harry S. Truman via the Associated Press)
Mistakes have happened in breaking news reporting for decades. While Twitter might spread these false bits of information faster than a telegraph, it also has the benefit of correcting those errors faster than ever before.