Accuracy In Reporting The News
When the biggies get it wrong, they really get it wrong. There was a brief time last week when CNN, the AP and Fox were all over the “news” that a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings had been identified. Not just identified, but taken into custody. Not just taken into custody, but arrested and about to be taken to court!
Only, most of it wasn’t true. After a couple of hours of excited chatter that spread from TV to Twitter to the blogosphere to word-of-mouth, it all collapsed in a huge mess of egg-on-face backpedaling.
As someone who has, actually, been wrong in my zeal to get a story out first, I can tell you there is no worse feeling for a reporter. But you learn. You learn to double- and triple-check. You learn to get confirmation from more than one source. You learn that being first is not as important as being right. And still, you make mistakes.
I’m not an apologist. When I got things wrong, I always knew it was my fault. I wasn’t careful enough. I didn’t check the right sources. I took someone at his or her word. I assumed. And I learned the sometimes painful lesson that my mistakes could affect people.
So I understand that breakdowns occur, and at all levels of the news ladder.
In this case, the mistakes by news organizations and by the leakers of faulty information had the potential to derail or at least slow down an investigation.
What I find truly reprehensible, though, is that the initial reports on the leaks were not only wrong, they were harmful in their implications. I watched on CNN as reporter John King repeated over and over that their sources had identified the suspect as a “dark-skinned man.” And then King said, “that may offend some people …” as if that disclaimer made it all right to repeat it yet again.
I think the notion that the phrase “might offend some people” actually missed the point. Yes, I do believe it was offensive, but it also was potentially harmful.
With the heightened sensitivity of our national state, a description like “dark-skinned man” is code to a lot of people. It plays into fears and prejudices and could lead to unintended consequences, like more violence against innocent people of a certain race or religion.
Where would the harm be in waiting for a more solid base of facts? Why repeat a phrase that is potentially inflammatory without being absolutely sure, especially when emotions are still raw?
Mistakes are one thing. Lack of common sense is another.
It is confusing for a news junkie these days. Information is being hurled at us from all different directions. And it’s fast. I often learn about a story from Twitter way before I see it on television or on the online sites of the major news organizations. The old guard simply cannot compete when it comes to speed. So, for me, fast isn’t all that important.
The value in traditional news for me has been – and is – that they still do things the old-fashioned way: checking and verifying facts before printing a story or airing it. I count on them for that. I hope we don’t lose it.