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‘You know nothing, John King’

Posted: April 19, 2013 8:57 a.m.
Updated: April 22, 2013 5:00 a.m.

 

In George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” a Wildling woman named Ygritte often tells one of the main characters “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” She says it because Jon, a member of the Nightwatch guard, tends to jump to conclusions about her people based on the stories he’s heard back in his home territory. Jon’s mistakes are honest ones: he grew up hearing those stories, and it’s hard to shake your upbringing. At least Jon’s trying.

The phrase could easily be applied to CNN reporter John King.

Despite the fact that he’s a seasoned reporter, having started as a writer with the Associated Press (AP) in 1985 and joining CNN in 1997, I’m not sure King’s learned any lessons about responsible journalism. Case in point is the disastrous reporting -- with King at the center -- during CNN’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing’s aftermath. Wednesday, King (a Boston native, no less) claimed to have been told by sources that a suspect had been arrested.

Not only did that turn out not to be true, but King compounded the problem by describing the suspect as a “dark skinned, male.”

Way to go.

The Associated Press made a similar report, although I can’t tell if they were simply taking King’s story and circulating it, or whether they had also been told someone had been arrested. FOX did, too, as did The Boston Globe. Both, I believe, ended up saying they took their information from King’s story at CNN.

King’s mistake is not one of upbringing. When I first heard he was reporting this information, I wanted to assume that his being from Boston meant he had good, solid, trustworthy connections to the investigation. At the same time, I was suspicious when he credited the information to anonymous sources who weren’t authorized to speak about the investigation.

Look, folks, I know I seem to be writing about this a lot lately, but I am tired, tired, tired of my colleagues on the national and even regional levels using anonymous sources for these types of stories.

I said last week that anonymous sources should be reserved for stories about wrong-doing within government or corporations that is harmful to the public in some way. It should not be used to win first-place in the race to splash headlines across TV screens or websites.

In response to the debacle, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

To my fellow journalists across the country: please take your time with reporting on the case in Boston (not to mention the possible ricin letters, etc.). Until a law enforcement official, NAMED and ON THE RECORD -- preferably during a news conference -- tells you an arrest has been made, gives you a name and a mugshot ... DON’T report it. Everyone wants to be first, but what we need is for everyone to be accurate.

Twenty-four hours earlier, I posted this:

I’m seeing differing theories, etc., on the Boston Marathon bombs and the possible bomber(s). On one hand, one analyst claims the bombs were crude and unsophisticated. Another report, however, claims the bombings were “not the work of an amateur.” This is the problem with a lot of “top-level” journalism today: too much talk, not enough facts. Let’s let the investigators do their job and then report on what they release.

Good, solid reporting relies on on-the-record statements and documentation. That can take a little extra time. Let’s take this from NBC and CBS’ perspectives. They didn’t report on the arrest, instead quickly confirming that there had been no arrests. They were “scooped” by King and CNN, but on a story that turned out not to be true.

CBS, NBC and a few other outlets took the time to check for the truth rather than having egg on their faces.

Of course, all of the networks are guilty of this kind of behavior, as are most of the big newspapers. This simply has to stop. The reliance on anonymous sources and unauthorized speakers undermines the credibility not just of the outlet using them but of the entire journalism industry. There is a place for anonymous sourcing -- whistleblowing, if you will -- but not for every story under the sun.

John King should have known better. But, apparently -- like many others on his end of the business -- he “knows nothing” about what I consider to be responsible reporting in this regard: getting the people who tell you these things not just on the record but in front of the curtain of anonymity.

Things got better on the reporting front by Friday morning when -- thanks to actual, credible, news conferences and official press release information (not to mention interviewing eye witnesses) -- the media was able to report that one of two identified suspects -- Chechen brothers who had been in this country for some time -- had been killed. A manhunt was underway for the remaining brother as I finished writing this.

The best reporting was by Boston television journalist David Wade of CBS affiliate WBZ-TV. I understand he provided street-to-street descriptions of where police were heading during Friday’s early morning manhunt. Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute put it best, “Say what you want about TV anchors, but here is a guy with years on the street as a reporter and a Massachusetts native.

“Boston media are like that. Days like this remind us of why we need journalists who live in the market they work in for a long time and know how to report a story that doesn’t rest.”

Usually, I would say that Wade’s coverage will likely catapult him into the national ranks, perhaps to become a CBS News reporter or even anchor someday. I actually hope that doesn’t happen. Boston needs him; he’s proven that. I watched him earlier last week and he was one of the, if not the, best example of local TV reporting I’ve seen in a very long time. If he does move up, I have a feeling he’ll do a great job while maintaining his integrity.

I can’t say that about John King.

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