Police officers work a crime scene Friday, April 19, 2013, in Watertown, Mass. A tense night of police activity that left a university officer dead on campus just days after the Boston Marathon bombings and amid a hunt for two suspects. (Matt Rourke/AP)

In the stir-crazy madness of last week’s lockdown and manhunt for the marathon bombers, thousands of people decided they had found the perfect recipe for real, live, up-to-the-minute news: an unfiltered police scanner and Twitter.

It’s not the first time it’s happened. But the Boston-area police search may mark a point when instantly reporting snatches of conversation and overheard tips from a police radio became a go-to source for legions of people.

Any reporter who was trained in an honest-to-goodness newsroom knows this much: The police scanner is a blunt instrument, not a source of solid facts.

And that’s unfortunate. Not because technology is the enemy, or because people shouldn’t be informed. I fear this change because eventually, the police will tire of having to tamp down runaway reports based on nothing more than scanner whispers — and take the stream out of public use.

Any reporter who was trained in an honest-to-goodness newsroom knows this much: The police scanner is a blunt instrument, not a source of solid facts. It’s a real-time conversation of tips, rumors, and leads being passed back and forth by untold numbers of nameless officials.

The stuff being said over those airwaves is definitely real. But it isn’t necessarily true.

Civilians can be forgiven for not knowing this. But professional journalists? Yikes. If you care about your audience, you don’t report what you hear come over the scanner, without confirming it first.

Sadly, in the insane rush to get the latest information about the Boston manhunt, many in the media tossed this rule overboard. As you might be able to guess, bad things happened.

In an effort to restrict access to their internal communications police departments around the nation are moving to encrypt scanners. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In an effort to restrict access to their internal communications police departments around the nation are moving to encrypt scanners. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The lightest offenses were confusing reports of possible additional suspects being questioned or pursued, which turned out to be dead ends. The worst was when obsessive scanner-tweeters started spreading two false suspect names, including that of a missing Brown University student.

As Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic showed in great detail, that bit of scanner-bait was just too irresistible. Many people in the media repeated the bogus suspect names, including the social media editor for Newsweek, the media reporter for Politico, and Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo. (There’s now even some question about whether the missing student’s name was even read over the scanner, which makes things even weirder.)

As a reporter by trade, holed up in my house on Friday as a rapt media consumer, I was bewildered at the number of press people who apparently didn’t know that scanner traffic is too dangerous to repeat as a source.

Here’s a prime example: On the Media, the nationally syndicated NPR media criticism show, performed a deconstruction of this very phenomenon in its most recent episode. Host Brooke Gladstone talked to one of the show’s producers — he was among those spreading false suspect names on Twitter — and tried to retrace how the thrill of being in the mix can blow past all good sense.

But Gladstone herself seemed to be unaware that sending out scanner reports was a foundational journalistic no-no. Here’s what she tweeted during the chaos:

This is a bona fide media critic, pondering the verity of a fricking police scanner. Something you’re supposed to learn your first month on the job.

So why aren’t more of us aware of the dangers of relying on scanners? Sadly, it’s probably yet another holdover from the old, dependable, industrial days of the news business, when the priesthood in charge of all information processing could pass along its wisdom hand-to-hand, never worrying that someone would start reporting the news without first getting the lesson.

We should correct that, and quickly. Newsrooms and the people who run them have built up a huge amount of knowledge about the finer points of sorting information in real time — how to chase down leads, verify or knock down rumors, and make sure you’re not running with a half-baked theory.

Why aren’t more of us aware of the dangers of relying on scanners? Sadly, it’s probably yet another holdover from the old, dependable, industrial days of the news business…

Media and publishing are expanding almost too quickly to comprehend now, and that won’t stop. If news operations start sharing their lessons and knowledge, it can help ensure that good values are baked into the equation.

(Hey, maybe it’d even help the professionals follow their own advice — the early, incorrect reports of a bombing suspect arrest showed just how much can be lost when you ignore your own rules on anonymous sourcing, as The Associated Press explained this week.)

Or the press could choose to keep this stuff locked up in the heads of its current practitioners. Damn the torpedoes — who the hell listens to Twitter anyway? But if it spirals out of control, and police scanners start to evaporate, we’ll carry some of the blame.

Tags: Boston, Boston Marathon Bombings

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • J Brown

    Thanks for the important perspective on police scanners. I appreciate WBUR’s efforts in the past to be right rather than first and for that reason, it was my chosen news source all day last Friday.

  • Ethan Gilsdorf

    Bravo. Great piece.

    • curtwoodward

      Thanks Ethan!

  • tmcenroe

    Great piece, Curt. Of course, there is a second interesting dynamic that you touched on briefly – that some who wouldn’t report scanner traffic would report tweets about scanner traffic, which is how some of these rumors, errant names and other misinformation spread even more quickly. Compared to that, reliance on listening to the scanner is almost the lesser evil!

  • John Curran

    I agree that police scanner news is mostly inaccurate, but it really depends on the situation. By the final hours in Watertown, the police scanners were about 98% accurate and people tweeting the reports were beating news outlets by 5 to 10 minutes. The reason that the information had got better was because those involved in the standoff were professionals bused in with SWAT or other training.

    That stands in stark contrast to the earlier stages, where nearly everyone with a badge and a gun was running all over the Boston metro trying to get answers.

    So I agree that scanner traffic can be very dangerous to report on, it’s unfair to not consider the context of who is on the police radios as well. Of course, that does not mean that it should be the sole source, just that the veracity is likely to increase depending on who’s coming over the radio.

  • bobasher

    Why is the police scanner made so accessible? In the final minutes, one could listen as the police described their readiness and next steps to lifting the boat cover and apprehending the suspect. What if the suspect is listening in on his smartphone? What if he had a gun and knew where and when to aim? Don’t the police have a secure line they can use? What is the purpose for using insecure communications?

    • Alan Wilensky

      The modern digital systems have clear and encrypted comms, and all agencies have the option of Keying their APCO 25 standard radios (and other types) to use plain digital transmission (not readable by most older and analog scanner, but accessible by newer ones) and point to point simplex or fleet / trunked encryption. There are some problems with simplex digital systems that need coordination to make sure that all radios are loaded with the proper keys. In the most modern systems the encryption keys are distributed OTA. Even Federal Agencies often forgo encryption on sensitive surveillance and undercover work, because its gets complicated to make the mesh work, and I hear the result when encrypted radios get out of sync or the task force does not have all of the proper keys distributed. So that’s the tech end.

      Now, on the societal externalities. In other nations, and even here in the USA, where a few Local Law Enforcement agencies have gone all encrypted – the public and the press have no idea what abuses or slip ups are going on. Some jurisdictions with total encryption have been sued by media properties to provide a limited monitoring channel in the clear so the news departments can stay abreast of what is happening in the community.

      When it is a tactical situation encryption can be switched on, and better systems (centralized trunked, APCO25, distributed keys) make it fairly painless. Since 9/11, money was allocated for enhanced communications and better inter-agency operability – but there still some problems when coordinating end-to-end secure digital comms.

      For patrol, most community policing, and even detectives….many law enforcement professional actually prefer simple – what works works. There are still many operational issues that are just being worked out for coordinating large fleets of secure radios, and there are similar problems with coordinating Itinerant secure simplex radios on the common Federal frequencies. Buy a modern digital scanner and programming it can range from a long job to a deep study in computer interfacing just for receiving digital unencrypted transmissions. So if you get my drift, both he police value the simplicity of “easy to operate” just as most criminal would shun the complexity of modern scanners.

  • writerink

    I agree that police scanner info can be unreliable. However in our wildfire prone area scanner traffic is often the only way to get word about brush fires threatening homes or closing roads — the agencies often can’t be reached in a timely manner especially at night. To protect public safety there are entire networks of citizens online here that have sprung up to report on scanner traffic regarding fires, as well as other media that rely on these. The scanners are usually accurate for initial reports on fires’ locations and when a fire is extinguished, though not always accurate on details such as acreage estimates or cause.