former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Reporting It Right, The First Time

In Blog on May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Boston Marathon bombings reminded us of the perils of real-time reporting.  Live tweeting, streaming news coverage and instant punditry all seemed to conspire together to confound and confuse.

In this age of nearly instant communication, there were instant and inaccurate reports, about the number of dead, the progress of the investigation, and the suspects.  The New York Post did everything but declare two teens in the crowd to be the perpetrators, circling their faces in red, on a cover photo titled “Bag Men.”   Other media outlets breathlessly told us that a Saudi man might be sought in the case, also wrong. We were even told that a suspect was arrested when no arrest had been made.

Washington Post media critic Paul Farhi isn’t bothered by fast-breaking news containing mistakes.  He wrote that in a media environment where events happen, and are reported, in real time, errors are inevitable, and don’t matter as much as they used to.   Farhi cites Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who observed that technology greatly speeds up the correction of initial misinformation, and thus errors matter less.

That seems like a rather weak defense.  If news outlets want to be taken seriously, the major value they bring to the table is that they report verified facts, not unverified assertions or speculation.  If CNN isn’t better than the Twitterverse, why does it exist?  If the chances of my receiving credible fact-based information aren’t improved if I pick up a newspaper rather than search for reports in the blogosphere, why should I bother with any mainstream news outlet?  Indeed, Farhi ends his column with another observation from Jurkowitz, who notes that mistakes damage the credibility of the news media as a whole, even when the public fails to distinguish media outlets that report the facts from those that are more lax.

The New York Times’ David Carr got it right when he noted that accuracy is something that the American public ought to expect, and get, from its news media.  If journalists merely regurgitate what they hear, anyone can do their job.

And despite our obsession with knowing everything in real time, we also look to mainstream media outlets for validation of what we learned, and – to some extent – the kind of power and beauty that words can impart to terrible events.  The day after the bombings, I picked up The New York Times, and came close to tears when I read the first sentence of its main story.  Listen to its cadence, the somber measured tone of the words, the restraint.

Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring more than 100, as one of this city’s most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams and carnage.

Journalism is not just about reporting what happened.  A journalist bears witness to terrible events, and in the bearing witness, brings some order into chaos.

The New York Times of course was not the only media outlet praised for covering this terrible event with professionalism.  The Boston Globe’s exclusive interview with “Danny,” the young Chinese entrepreneur carjacked by the Tsarnaev brothers, had all the narrative force of a good detective story. NBC’s Pete Williams proved that you can cover breaking news, maintain accuracy, and still beat the competition.

Avoiding mistakes should not be aspirational.  It should be the very least that the public can expect from reporters.

Errors, even when they’re corrected, have consequences that extend far  beyond journalism’s reputation.  The father of one of the teens in the “Bag Men” picture says his son is wary of going to school and cannot sleep because of the accusations.  The Moroccan teens are immigrants, so you can imagine how vulnerable they must feel in their adopted country, where anti-immigrant sentiment is high.

Technology may exacerbate things, but it always has taken courage for journalists to resist rushing to report information before it was confirmed.   When the Oklahoma City bombing shocked the nation in 1995, rumors circulated just as wildly with front-line reporters under terrific pressure to beat their competitors.  ABC News Department of Justice reporter Beverley Lumpkin refused to report that the bomber had an Arabic last name.  I cite Lumpkin’s recollection in my book. “The head of our investigative unit was pounding on me.  He was screaming at me, he was cursing me.  But I just kept saying, ‘I don’t think it’s true …’” Later, of course, the bomber turned out to be Timothy McVeigh.  ABC news did not make the same mistake that many other media outlets did.

False reporting never just goes away.  It lingers.  The damage it does to  the victims of reporting mistakes may never be undone. And the impressions that false reporting leaves often remain in the fabric of our democratic discourse long after the shooting stops.

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