Leaks mar reporting and investigations

Relying heavily on leaks from law enforcement, summer headlines were dominated by the bombing at the Olympics and the crash of TWA Flight 800. Although the media occasionally lapsed into rationality, most coverage concentrated on fast answers, not ongoing investigations. The press presented Richard Jewell as the prime suspect in the Atlanta bombing, psychoanalyzing his behavior patterns as hero syndrome before he had been formally charged. And reports of the TWA crash focused almost exclusively on a bomb or missile, virtually dismissing the possibility of mechanical failure.
In the past two weeks, the FBI dismissed Jewell as a suspect and the Federal Aviation Administration declared that after more than two months of investigation there is still no solid evidence that terrorism was the cause of the TWA crash. The media has subsequently appeared rather sheepish in any attempt to justify their summer feeding frenzies.
Traditionally the press has relied on sources within law enforcement to produce credible information that they can pass on to the public. The realities of journalism in the information age, however, indicate textbook reporting needs to be seriously reevaluated. Increasingly, the rule is becoming: If it’s in print anywhere else, it’s OK to repeat it. The zealous desire to provide the answers demanded by the public needs to be tempered by a demand for accuracy. In covering the Jewell and TWA investigations the press behaved like a branch of law enforcement. In the Jewell case, many journalists acted like bad rookie cops, convicting on the basis of rumor. And with Flight 800, they looked for evidence that fit a preconceived version of what happened.
But the press alone is not to blame for the information presented in the summer’s biggest stories. Law enforcement must also be held accountable. Those conducting investigations are fully aware they are in the public eye and are expected to come up with answers as quickly as possible. This need to establish a competent public image becomes a problem when incomplete or inaccurate information is leaked to the media. Although Jewell’s status as a prime suspect was discovered by an intern at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution who stumbled into the FBI stakeout, it was confirmed by off-the-record sources at the bureau. In the case of the TWA crash, despite the fact that the missile rumor was started on the Internet by a retired commercial pilot who had not witnessed the crash, investigators would neither confirm nor deny the reports.
The competitive desire to break a story and the immediacy of uncorroborated information make the media less likely to extensively check accuracy. In this type of atmosphere, rumors can easily explode into the public eye and unsubstantiated claims can do serious damage. Both law enforcement and the media need to have the courage to say, “we don’t know yet.” A public accustomed to a quick resolution of difficult questions may not immediately accept these ambiguous answers. But the long-term negative effects of inaccurate investigation and reporting, such as the destruction of Jewell’s reputation and the premature paranoia of terrorism in America’s skies, seriously undermine the credibility the press and law enforcement need to adequately fulfill their role in our society.