A day ago, we explained how we balance speed with rumor control at Breaking News. Then we were faced with a tough decision, challenging our convictions on a very big story.
Despite three major news organizations reporting an arrest in the Boston bombings, we waited. As a curation team that’s literally branded “Breaking News,” waiting is agonizing. We watched the tweets stream across the screen, but something just didn’t feel right.
"Lots of noise in the system right now," explained Tom Brew, who heads Breaking News’ editorial team. Added senior editor Stephanie Clary in our team’s backchannel chat, “CNN reporting arrests made, but still feel best to hold for a bit.”
CNN was alone on the story, and NBC said its sources maintained there’s no arrest. A short time later, Fox News reported an arrest, and the Boston Globe sent a short tweet, “Arrest in Boston Marathon bombing.”
As we occasionally see in situations like these, news organizations break a story sourced to the same person — or even sourced to each other. So I sent the Globe a tweet asking for clarification:
@bostonglobe Independently confirmed or passing along CNN’s report?— Cory Bergman (@corybe)
Moments later, the Globe updated to say they had sourced the news to CNN. “I think we’re good to keep holding,” Stephanie explained in the chat.
Then the story crossed on AP. That’s three major sources: CNN, Fox News and AP, which is typically the tipping point for Breaking News on a high-risk story. At this point, Tom and Stephanie were poised to report an arrest, but CBS joined NBC in citing sources denying an arrest had been made.
"I say we still hold," Stephanie said. "CBS local backing off, too."
I chimed into the chat, “Is there a way to attribute an arrest to some, and no arrest to others in a single update?”
"I think this is where we can provide clarity versus confusion, and just hold a bit," Stephanie wrote. "Because I think it’ll be more clear soon. No local orgs reporting it independently is odd to me."
Stephanie nailed it: moments later, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul said there was no one in custody. ABC reported “no arrest yet.” CNN began backing off on the air, which soon turned into a retraction.
In the heat of the story, Stephanie illustrated what makes Breaking News different. Twitter was a mess, rumors were flying on Facebook and Reddit was coming up with its own bombing suspects. As the only breaking news source that’s independent and agnostic in our curation — we don’t favor any brands, even those of our parent company NBC — we’re in a unique position to help bring a little clarity and order.
But just like any other news organization in this white-knuckled business, we don’t always get it right. We’re not better journalists, we just approach breaking news from a different angle. It’s an imperfect science, and it’s our policy to be massively transparent when we get it wrong.
Over the last couple years, we’ve talked to many people who were surprised to learn we have editors behind the scenes at Breaking News. “Oh, you’re not just another aggregator?” they’d ask, looking at our mobile app. Every update around the clock is published by our editors, I explain. We’re a real-time news service with an editorial filter, occupying a new space between free-wheeling social networks and the rich storytelling and context provided by new organizations.
In a world of intensifying information overload, sometimes less is more, and prudence pays off.