Did the Coast Guard or CNN cause the 9/11 panic on the Potomac?

Most of the criticism for erroneous reports of gunshots is aimed at the Coast Guard exercise. But news organizations take hits too for going live with unconfirmed reports reminiscent of Chicken Little.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
A US Coast Guard boat patrols the Potomac River near Washington, DC on September 11, 2009.

The United States Coast Guard continues to take flak for its exercise on the Potomac River in Washington Friday. Critics say it should have been more sensitive to the mental atmosphere on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The anxiety caused by this situation on such a solemn day is extremely disturbing,” said Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, senior Republican on a homeland security subcommittee. “It sounds very much like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.”

Senior Coast Guard officials promise a “thorough review” of the incident in which there was a simulated attack on a “suspicious vessel” involving a radio broadcast of mock gunfire but no actual shots being fired.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pushed back against suggestions that this week’s episode was somehow like one earlier this year when the Air Force conducted an unannounced photo op over New York City in which Air Force One appeared to be chased by fighter jets. Since many New Yorkers immediately remembered the day when hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center, it seemed insensitive to say the least.

Gibbs pointed out that the initial breathless report on CNN was based on what someone heard on a radio scanner -- unconfirmed by the Coast Guard, which in essence had said it didn’t know what the CNN reporter calling for comment was talking about. Based on what CNN had reported but without doing its own checking, Reuters and then Fox News went with the story as well.

“Before we report things like this, checking would be good,” Gibbs said. To which many media experts could only say, “Duh!”

"The higher the stakes, the more careful you have to be to make sure you are correct," Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication, told the Los Angeles Times. "Unfortunately, this is one of those examples of ready-fire-aim journalism."

Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism center in St. Petersburg, Fla., also told the LA Times: "It's a really dangerous practice to use radio traffic as your principal source of information, because it so often turns out to be incorrect."

Listening to the police radio scanner for stories to chase has been common practice in newsrooms for decades. But with cell phone texting and Twitter tweets, it brings to mind something Winston Churchill said: “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

In this case, it was a half hour -- eternity in an age of Internet communication -- before CNN corrected its first report.

It’s not an isolated problem, Tompkins writes on PoynterOnline.org:

“Reputable news organizations reporting bad information appears to be a growing problem in the American news media. Some newsrooms are cutting corners by not verifying information. Others are recycling incorrect information by simply reposting the work of others on their Web sites.
“Although cable news programs face a certain pressure to be first and fill a lot of time with breaking news, all newsrooms can stumble in the race to be first. The skill of verifying facts is more important than ever. And it may be the only thing that elevates journalism above the rest of the noise on the Internet.”

There are lessons in all of this, especially for young journalists in an increasingly competitive profession.

“As an editor, I forbade reporting off the [police] scanner, tempting though it is,” writes Dean Miller, director of the Center for News Literacy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in an email to reporters and columnists. “CNN's 9/11 debacle this week is a perfect teaching moment.”


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