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Do news mistakes matter anymore?

Over and over this week, the media got it wrong. A suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings had been arrested; in fact, one hadn’t. A Saudi national was in custody in the attacks; in fact, there was no such individual. The two actual suspects had ties to jihadist groups; well, that wasn’t clear then, either.

Mistakes happen often in reporting big, complicated, fast-moving stories like the one in Boston. The question is: How much does erroneous reporting matter these days?

One answer: perhaps less than ever.

There’s no excuse for getting the facts wrong. It’s a basic rule of journalism, drummed into every rookie reporter’s head: Get the story right. In addition to potentially harming a news outlet’s credibility, erroneous reporting can have devastating consequences, from ruining a subject’s reputation to endangering public safety. Competitive pressure and the desire for scoops can increase the potential for errors.

But reporting mistakes may not be as consequential as they used to be, media observers say.

Although errors can travel faster than ever in a wired age, corrections and accurate information flow faster, too, said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based think tank. In fact, minutes after the Associated Press, CNN and Fox News reported Wednesday that an arrest had been made, the information was being refuted by other sources via television and social media, he notes. The original sources soon corrected their mistakes.

“Information gets walked back very fast,” Jurkowitz says. “There is a self-correcting mechanism in journalism that’s quicker than it’s ever been.”

What’s more, unlike an earlier age in which live breaking news was reported by a limited number of broadcast outlets, there are now multiple sources of information for any major news event, he said. This enables readers and viewers to “triangulate” any piece of breathlessly reported information by switching webites or channels.

The public remains “pretty understanding” of errors as long as a news outlet owns up to them, says Scott Maier, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon who has researched reporting mistakes. “The research shows that people who are sources of the news media know the media won’t get it all right all the time. There’s an expectation that when news is fast-breaking and unfolding that reporters won’t always have it right.”

People are less tolerant when mistakes aren’t acknowledged or the on-air speculation veers into ethnic or racial stereotypes, said Emily Bell, a journalism professor at Columbia University.

Maier singled out the New York Post for publishing a photo of two men on its cover Thursday under the headline “Bag Men,” implying that they were suspects when neither has been charged. “If you’re mistaken, you need to examine what went wrong and why,” he said.

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