Following a number of major errors by prominent news outlets covering the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the following investigation, traditional media should focus on accuracy rather than “competing” with social media, say industry experts.
As news of the Boston bombings broke last week, Twitter solidified its place as a key disseminator of real-time information, captivating audiences as the event unfolded and a massive manhunt ensued.
PR professionals agree Twitter was by no means the bastion of accuracy, with misinformation spreading quickly over the platform. But in their attempts to break real-time news, traditional media outlets also fell afoul of factual errors.
Criticism was directed at CNN, which falsely reported authorities had a bombing suspect in custody. The New York Post also came under fire for inaccurate reporting.
Reports indicate that CNN's blunder did little damage to ratings, with a spike in viewing on the network in the days after the bombing.
“There is always one thing about journalism, you have to be accurate,” says George Regan, chairman and founder of Boston-based Regan Communications Group. He points out that during 9-11, social media did not exist, but “this time around, there were more than enough mistakes to go around.”
He said errors, such as those made by CNN, were a result of traditional outlets “competing with social media.”
“CNN has great credibility, but it made a mistake. A lot of big news organizations need to take a time-out and reflect on what they did right and wrong,” he explained, adding that a lesson to be learned would be to “slow down.”
“Everyone rushes to be No. 1, but you've got to be accurate,” he said. “Social media's got millions of miles to go, and traditional media can't lose sight of that. Being first isn't always right.”
Charles McLean, GM for New York at Portland Communications, agrees that traditional news outlets were under pressure to keep pace with the stream of news on Twitter.
“There will always be mistakes in fast-moving events, and it is difficult to verify the information in real-time,” he says. “But there will be more [mistakes] when a network anchor can feel Twitter breathing down their neck.”
McLean explains that the inaccuracies are likely to have a minor impact on the credibility of traditional media in the eyes of PR professionals.
“The viewers, readers, and listeners will have to make their own calculations. The overall track record of mainstream media is still good, and I don't expect the occasional stumble is going to change that,” he says. “We are just going to see how they adjust to the pressure to report faster and faster.”
McLean adds that while traditional media now has a few “dents in the armor,” Portland will continue to recommend that its clients communicate through established and trusted outlets.
“In general terms, people will still switch on a TV to find out what's happening,” he says.
Joe Edelson, media relations group director at Citizen Paine, agrees that while the mainstream media should be “a bit more diligent,” inaccuracies in the reporting of the Boston bombings does not mean media relations should be reassessed.
“[The bombings] was such a rare occurrence and tragedy. It lends itself to social media, video, and people posting online, but it doesn't lend itself to a change in strategy,” he says. “For me it is not ‘one size fits all' – it depends on who the client is and what the overall strategy is. Social media and traditional media are intertwined, and we try to integrate the two when working with clients.”
Nontraditional media outlets also made their fair share of mistakes. For example, Reddit came under fire for its “Findthebostonbomers” thread, which resulted in individuals wrongly fingered as suspects. It later issued an apology.
The credibility of Twitter as a reliable news source was called into question this week when the Associated Press' account was hacked and put out a false tweet about an attack on the White House. While the fake tweet was immediately corrected, it caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to sharply drop, temporarily wiping a reported $136.5 billion off its value.
For Ian Lipner, VP of Lewis PR's Washington office, this event raises more questions about the reliability of Twitter as an outbound mechanism for communications.
“Twitter is a leading indicator of news, but it is much rifer with falsehood and it is not reliable gauge on its own,” says Lipner. He adds that it can also serve as an important test case for a media relations strategy.
Brands can learn lessons from both events that will benefit their communications strategy, he explains.
“There are different gears when it comes to media relations…what happened gives brands reason to pause and think about how speed and truth interact and how does that affect their market,” he says. “As a society, we have to choose between speed and trust and what we want more. If we want truth, we need to be more patient, and if we want audience, that is a totally different question.”