Sunday, April 28, 2013

Getting It First vs. Getting It Right

The pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombers has been a great opportunity for journalism professors like myself to explore the emphasis in today's media on being first with a story — regardless of whether it is right.

When I was in journalism school, the emphasis was reversed. Getting it right was more important than reporting it first.

I don't mean to suggest that being first wasn't important. It certainly was. Always has been. But the difference is that we were told repeatedly that accuracy took priority. Publishing rumor, hearsay or something that was not independently verifiable was unacceptable.

That was something aspiring journalists learned from reading "All the President's Men." Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of young journalists with their coverage of an imploding presidency, but they insisted on having at least two sources for anything they wrote.

As a result, they were rarely wrong about anything. They were often impugned by their adversaries in the White House, but they were seldom wrong.

Far fewer sources apparently were required by CNN when it reported — erroneously — that a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings was in custody. This was more than 24 hours before the release of the photographs of the suspects by the FBI led to the death of one and the eventual apprehension of the other.

The audience bears a certain amount of responsibility for this atmosphere.

We live in a culture that not only desires but expects instant gratification. Nothing demands discipline anymore. We have hundreds of TV stations from which to choose — and the ability to record multiple programs for viewing at our convenience. We have numerous options for quick, filling (and mostly absent any nutritional value) food to eat and pills to take to fall asleep at night.

If we experience pain, we can get pain relievers over the counter that promise instant relief. Landline phones are disappearing; everyone has his or her own personal phone now — along with his or her personal water bottle in case of a sudden attack of thirst.

And people in the 21st century know that they can go to multiple web sites — in addition to the traditional stand–bys, the broadcast and print media — for news and information. There is no shortage of sources, and each one seems eager to go with any story it has — even if that story is wrong.

Being first is what counts with the audience.

And the pressure to be first guides the often ill–advised actions of media outlets.

Being right is what should matter to all journalists

When I was a journalism student — and then a young journalist — I knew I was up against competition for the readers' time and attention. Competition is part of the business, just like it is part of any other business. And scooping the competition is definitely not a new concept. If I could scoop my competition, that was great. But my professors and editors insisted on accuracy.

I believed in it then, and I still believe in it. Double checking isn't just a good idea for insurance companies eager to attract customers with discounts, you know. It's a good idea for journalists, too, and it used to be underscored with the words Libel Manual emblazoned on the cover of the AP Stylebook — the journalist's bible.

Now, libel is treated almost like an afterthought by the AP — but I know it isn't. It couldn't be. Libel is still a significant portion of media law, and any media outlet that acts as if it isn't is playing with fire. At the very least, it is tempting fate.

E.J. Dionne laments, in the Washington Post, this rush to judgment in the media. And that judgment usually supports whatever the journalist is predisposed to believe.

There is every bit as much partisan rushing to judgment on the left as there is on the right.

In Boston, Dionne observes, "there was an immediate divide between those who were sure the attack was a form of Islamic terrorism and those just as convinced that it was organized by domestic, right–wing extremists. ... [A]bsolutely no one imagined what turned out to be the case: that two young immigrants with Chechen backgrounds would be held responsible for unleashing the violence."

This is not what I believe journalism is about. Journalists report the news. They are not cheerleaders for one side or the other. They report the facts, even if the facts contradict their personal beliefs, and allow the readers to reach their own conclusions.

OK, a few journalists are cheerleaders. They write opinion columns — and, in most cases, those columns are labeled as opinion.

If it isn't clear whether an article in a newspaper is a news report or an opinion column, I would not recommend that you continue reading that publication.

There was a time when I would recommend to people that they turn to CNN for reliable news coverage.

I would have made that recommendation as recently as four years ago, when CNN was the only news outlet (as far as I know) that didn't jump to conclusions based on the observations of unauthorized personnel — and waited until someone who was authorized to do so confirmed that Michael Jackson had died.

That decision prevented CNN from being first; CNN, however, retained its integrity.

But, as the attached clips so clearly show, CNN yielded to the dark side in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and joined (nay, led) the rush to judgment. There were lesser news outlets that did what CNN should have been doing, what CNN used to do — what all media outlets should have done — the responsible thing.

Next time, undoubtedly, it will be someone else who does the right thing. And, rest assured, there will be a next time.

Responsible journalists do not report rumor, innuendo and hearsay. They do not take their lead from "canine dogs" barking in the darkness or what other outlets may be doing.

They do their job. They report the news.

When Jon Stewart makes you the recipient of his razor–sharp witticisms twice in a week's time, your credibility is pretty much shot.

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