In the wake of the horrific Boston bombing in April, millions of people waited for any breaking news that would put them at ease. Families of victims, national security advisors and millions worldwide sat in silence as the 24-hour news cycle ripped apart every detail and fact that it could verify — until CNN broke the incredible news that the suspect had been captured. Thousands of viewers felt immediate relief. People across the country immediately rejoiced as the news quickly spread — I, for one, texted all my friends and family members to inform them of the good news. But less than an hour later, the truth surfaced that no suspect had been captured and that CNN had misinformed its millions of viewers with an incorrect report. This set off countless critics who derided and reprimanded the news network for being so reckless about such an important and groundbreaking issue.
If there is any lesson to be learned from CNN’s blunder, it’s that media networks are corporations before they are corporate citizens.
The mass media, even referred to as the “fourth branch of government” by political scientists, holds an enormous amount of responsibility in reporting and informing the American public. This responsibility, unfortunately, is molded by the investors of these corporate giants rather than the wants and concerns of their viewers. CNN ran a profit of nearly $600 million in 2011, and Fox News ran a profit of nearly $900 million that same year. No longer do American news networks report to the American people in a nonbiased, informative fashion. Today’s media moguls are stereotyped by differing ideologies. Feeling conservative? Check out Fox News. Want some snarky liberal reporting? MSNBC. Only select news networks like ABC and NBC (which are not 24-hour news networks and are generally unpopular) try to preserve the good old days of the media. In these days of sound bites and the 24-hour news cycle, news networks will do anything they can to get ahead of a rival to turn a profit — even if that means running a story that can ruin a person’s life.
During the Newtown massacre this past December, the news corporations were churning out stories and digging deep to discover the identity of the shooter. Soon enough, several news networks incorrectly identified the shooter as Ryan Lanza, the shooter’s brother, and posted pictures of his Facebook profile on the web for all viewers to see. Within minutes, this man was receiving thousands of hate messages and even death threats. This man’s privacy was completely destroyed — and to what end? A news story that will garner a temporary 10 percent increase in website traffic? A marginal increase in profit?
If media networks want to regain Americans’ trust, they need to act responsibly and stop reporting news in a horse-race fashion. One mistake like CNN’s Boston bombing blunder can permanently cost them thousands of viewers — more than offsetting the temporary gain in viewers from the initial story. Risky stories like these have bad economics written all over them: The potential for gain is minimal, and the risk of loss is huge. I had to learn the lesson the hard way that these news networks care less about informing the public than about the race to the finish. If these news networks are going to give us a product like a corporation would, then we should treat ourselves as customers and use the one which serves our needs best. I no longer give the American news networks my business simply because these organizations do less reporting than they do commentary and speculation. I have switched to BBC and Al Jazeera, and I could not be happier.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the same option as I do. Ryan Lanza may never forget what this media did to him.