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All the News Unfit to Print: How Media Covers a Crash

When TWA Flight 800 exploded in the night off Long Island last week, it brought out some of the best - and worst - traits of the American media.

Most critics praise the overall restraint with which major news organizations tried initially to piece together the cause of the blast, blending eyewitness accounts and cautious speculation with what little official information was available.

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But as the week progressed and the investigation yielded few definitive clues about the cause, frustration mounted. And so did the number of misleading reports - from inconclusive test results to questionable theories about shoulder-launched missiles.

While such breaking events pose unusual challenges for news-gathering organizations, critics say they also require unusual restraint and sensitivity - two traits journalists don't always excel at. The coverage could add to the media's growing credibility problems.

"I think there's been more bad information out there on this incident than on anything else I can recall recently," says Lane Venardos, CBS's vice president for hard news and special events.

Mr. Venardos says CBS tried not to put anything on the air unless they knew, for a fact, that it was true. But like most news organization, the network got caught when a congressman announced, falsely, the plane's so-called black boxes that hold key information had been found. In fact, the black boxes were discovered late Wednesday night.

"If I was cynical, I'd say there probably were people who sought to enhance their own position with the notoriety and publicity that this thing generated," says Venardos, noting that after that incident CBS became very wary of information from anyone other than officials with direct knowledge.

Others, though, believe the media showed great discipline. "I wouldn't change anything in the way we handled the story," says Ed Turner, CNN's executive vice president. "I think the tone was right and the caution was there."

Columbia Journalism School's Rhoda Lipton faults the media for not following the simple dictates of journalism school: double-sourcing information and double-checking information before putting it on the air.

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"The speculation about a shoulder-launched missile was just nonsense, it's just bad reporting," says Christopher Harper, who teaches journalism at New York University.

Mr. Harper also says much of the speculation whipped up a "frenzy" that inspired more fear than shed light. He says the word "terrorism" was thrown around far too often, without being put into a proper context.

BUT others are more forgiving. Alex Jones, host of National Public Radio's "On The Media," feels much of the speculation was appropriate and cautious. "When you have a tragedy that goes to the heart of a vulnerability that all Americans feel, and you don't have any clear indication of what happened, I think those kinds of theories are inevitable," says Jones.

But he was disturbed by what he felt was an "almost ghoulish probing" of the victims' lives. He believes it became a substitute for substantive news about the cause. "It has become, in my opinion, excessive," says Jones.

Jones, and most others interviewed, were also appalled by the allegation that New York Post reporter Tonice Sgrignoli posed as a relative of a victim on Monday so she could "mingle" with the families. Ms. Sgrignoli, who was charged with criminal impersonation, trespass, petty larceny, and possession of stolen property, had no comment. But many others did.

"I think that is reprehensible," says Jones, noting that on the same day the rest of the press had pooled coverage of part of the memorial service out of respect for the families.

"We journalists have only our credibility, and if we lose that with the public, we have nothing," says Harper.

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