Jumping the gun

CNN and Fox cable news reporters in the U.S. jumped on what they
thought was a hot story, Coast Guard radio talk about gunfire in the
vicinity of that country’s president, causing an hour long public panic
that became a worldwide news story. When it turned out to be a routine
mock training exercise, the story’s focus turned on not just the cable
news reporters, but journalism in general.

The event was a routine Coast Guard training exercise that takes place
several times a week. No real shots were fired. But the event occurred
on  Sept. 11,when  the marine radio transmissions “caught the attention
of television crews on hair-trigger alert for trouble,” reported the New York Times, “producing an hourlong scare about gunfire from boats on the Potomac River not far from President Obama’s motorcade.”

“… breathless reports on CNN and Fox News Channel sent F.B.I. agents
and police officers to the riverbank and prompted a 20-minute halt to
flights at nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport,” reported the Times.

“But fear turned to anger as officials revealed that it was merely a
training exercise by the Coast Guard, and the media and top US
officials traded accusations that the incident had been irresponsibly
handled,” reported Agence France-Presse.

At a news conference White House press secretary Robert Gibbs
criticized the “news media,” suggesting, “My only caution would be that
before we report things like this, checking would be good.”

CNN — which reported the incident first — continues to portray
on its web site the training exercise as real news, dredging up
outraged spokespersons to complain about the Coast Guard’s lack of
notification, etc., etc. At the bottom of the story the network quotes
its own statement: “Given the circumstances, it would have been
irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing. As with
any breaking news story, information is often fluid, and CNN updated the story with the official explanation from the Coast Guard as soon as it was provided.”

Methinks the blame lies with the U.S. Coast Guard, which in the age of
cable news foolishly trusts reporters’ professionalism. Advises a Coast
Guard manual, noted by the Times, “If you need time to gather information, tell the journalist; he or she will wait.”