There is an old rule of journalism that many organizations at least used to adhere to. This rule requires journalists to confirm a story with two legitimate sources before moving forward with it. Anyone who has seen the HBO show The Newsroom may be familiar with this rule, but what they may not have known was that it is an actual thing.
This rule -- more like a guideline -- is designed to ensure that trust is established and maintained between news organizations and their audience. In theory, it should avoid speculative journalism and reporting... in theory.
On Tuesday, August 26, CNN reported on new audio that may or may not help investigators looking into the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time of the initial report, the audio was unauthenticated (it still is), but CNN reported on it anyway. It wasn't even confirmed with investigators that the audio could help at all.
But, in the ongoing effort to boost ratings, CNN has built a reputation of relying on pure speculation if it means it can be the first to report on a story. It is something that has increasingly become fodder for late night shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.In the audio, a man is talking to a friend or girlfriend or someone and what sounds like shots can be heard in the background. First, there are 5 or 6 shots, a pause, and then 3 or 4 more shots. It is hard to distinguish what is a shot and what may be an echo. However, the fact that there was a pause was enough to start the speculation.
CNN anchors, personalities, guest commentators, and analysts have spent a considerable amount of time discussing what exactly that pause could mean. What viewers should ultimately take away from everything discussed is that it could be anything. No one knows what happened or what the pause could have meant.
The tape itself may not help investigators at all as it is still being analyzed by the FBI, but speculation over it can help fuel outrage that already exists on both sides of the debate over whether police officer Darren Wilson is guilty of murder or was merely defending himself from an aggressive assailant.
However, the goal is no longer to establish and maintain the trust of viewers by reporting on the most accurate information available. The goal is to be able to say, "First reported on CNN..." Think about how many times anchors and CNN personalities have said those words. It doesn't matter if they butcher the story because they were the first to report on it.
The hope, of course, is that this will boost ratings, and for 5 nights straight it worked. CNN was able to beat its biggest cable news rival, Fox News, in key demographics as Anderson Cooper reported live from Ferguson, interviewing anyone who wanted face time and reporting on unverified information and speculative theories.
CNN has thrown away their long-standing motto of being "The Most Trusted Name in News," and has taken a lesson from Ricky Bobby: "If you ain't first, you're last."