Journalists serve the public by reporting factual information, verified by multiple sources and vetted for inaccuracies. When it comes to traumatic events that result in civilian deaths, they are responsible for bearing the weight of these tragedies while also disseminating accurate information about what’s going on at the scene.
We rely on reporters for providing us with updates for such events and information on stories that affect people’s lives. And for the most part, we assume what they’re saying is true. But when journalists misreport details, this takes away from the public’s trust of the media, and they are no longer reliable sources.
Recently, it was discovered that Kevin Cullen, a metro columnist for The Boston Globe, had fabricated information regarding the Boston marathon bombings. During a segment on his talk show, WEEI radio host Kirk Minihane reported many inconsistencies in Cullen’s recent column reflecting on the five-year anniversary of the bombings. Cullen claimed he witnessed the aftermath of the event, when he arrived to Boylston Street hours after the bombs had exploded. It was also revealed that previous columns written by Cullen closer to the 2013 attack also contained inaccurate information and even made-up people, including a firefighter named Sean who rescued a young victim of the explosions.
Especially in this age of misinformation and general distrust for the media, we cannot afford mistakes like these in newsrooms. The credibility gap between the public and the press continues to grow each day when more and more reporters abuse the trust of society. This case in particular is concerning because it involves a well-regarded columnist. Columnists are usually not pressured to write while the news breaks; they are given time to reflect and write, which makes inaccurate facts found in their work even more unsettling.
While Cullen, a former member of the Spotlight team, has been placed on administrative leave, this also reflects poorly on the Globe editorial staff as well that did not pick up on these inconsistencies and perhaps did not conduct a thorough fact-check. It’s a blow to the journalism industry if star reporters like Kevin Cullen can make up information and present it as the truth. This obviously also calls into question all of his other work for the Globe and previous newspapers.
There seems to be a lot at stake for journalists to cover events of trauma; they are expected to return with harrowing accounts and details and receive accolades for doing so. We prize these stories and laud journalists for doing this important work. However, if this culture comes into conflict with factual reporting, then perhaps we need to revisit the expectation. We certainly do not want to promote a culture where people feel comfortable lying and spreading misinformation.
During the marathon bombings, The Boston Globe was trusted as the local paper that would serve the community well when people were confused and scared by the attacks. People turned to the Globe as their primary source of information for the bombings and viewed it as an authority on the story.
The bombings have shaped Boston’s character for the past five years, with “Boston Strong” posters and graffiti displayed throughout the city. There’s a reason why post 2013, it’s especially important for people show up to support the runners and stand with them. Therefore, it’s crucial for papers like the Globe to uphold journalistic integrity in order to maintain the community’s trust.
Still, the fact that Cullen has been scrutinized and is facing consequences for fabrication indicates that we’re heading the right direction for dealing with this. Lying is not tolerated, even when it’s discovered several years after, and can put one’s career into jeopardy.
Even it was just a blunder in fact-checking or an example of falsified memory, there should be punitive measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again. If journalists want a good relationship with the public, then the industry needs to work on ensuring reporting is factual, regardless of who it’s coming from.