Hot takes and rushes to judgment: This weekend’s biggest stories remind us to set a high bar

January 22, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

Is it true?

If there is one sentence that perfectly captured the weekend in media news, it’s that one. Is the BuzzFeed News story that President Donald Trump directed his attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about Trump’s business ties to Russia true? If so, it’s an impeachable offense and major scoop for BuzzFeed News.

If it’s not? It would be a devastating and perhaps permanent stain on BuzzFeed News’ reputation and maybe even a black eye for all journalists covering Trump. It would fuel those who subscribe to the idea that any negative coverage of Trump, even if legitimate, is fake news from the evil media, and it would be a strong argument for those who believe the media is out to get Trump, truth be damned.

BuzzFeed News’ explosive story, using two anonymous federal law enforcement officials involved in Robert Mueller’s investigation, went online Thursday night. That energized Trump detractors. In a rare move, a spokesperson for Mueller said BuzzFeed News’ story was “not accurate,’’ although it wouldn’t say what was inaccurate. That statement buoyed Trump and his supporters.

Until the Mueller report is released, there will be those who remain skeptical of BuzzFeed’s report.

Speaking on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,’’ Anthony Cormier, who co-wrote the story and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2016 while with the Tampa Bay Times, told host Brian Stelter: “Our reporting is going to be borne out to be accurate and we’re 100 percent behind it.’’

BuzzFeed’s future might depend on that.

“If this story is wrong,’’ Stelter said on his show, “BuzzFeed as a whole is in trouble.’’

That’s not an overstatement.

“We’re confident in the story,’’ Ben Smith, BuzzFeed News’ editor in chief, said.

Now comes the other question that has come out of all this: How should other news outlets have covered the BuzzFeed report, in light of the fact that no one else has yet to indepently replicate the reporting or confirm it?

The charges in the story, written by a news organization that has broken stories on the Trump-Russia investigation that have turned out to be true, were so serious that they could not be ignored. But most news outlets used the caveat of “if true’’ whenever they mentioned BuzzFeed’s story.

“‘If true’ is not a good standard in journalism,’’ Fox News’ Howard Kurtz said on his network. “It wasn’t proven. No news organization could match it, and that’s why nobody looks good in this episode.’’

The problem was a rush to judgment, including from Kurtz, who ignored his own warnings.

“This was a humiliating episode for BuzzFeed, but also a black eye for many, many media organizations,’’ Kurtz said on Fox News. “You just can’t go into a charge of this magnitude, accusing the president of the United States of suborning perjury … without some email or text message or document, not just a couple of anonymous sources.’’

Well, it’s only humiliating for BuzzFeed News if the story turns out to be untrue. If it is true then they have nothing to feel humiliated about. But Kurtz’s overall point about not rushing to judgment is spot on.

The media must guard against jumping the gun just to stay relevant on a big story such as this. When there is a fear of being left behind on a major story, news outlets must be sure that a “hot take’’ doesn’t outmuscle smart, prudent and responsible reactions.

That issue came into play with the other controversial story of the weekend: a viral video in which private school students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats appeared to be in a standoff with a Native American advocate and Marines Corps veteran in Washington, D.C.

Almost as soon as it hit social media, a 3-minute, 44-second video of the incident blew up. Condemnation of the students was swift and harsh on social media and within the mainstream media. Twenty-four hours later, a much longer video and more detailed reporting emerged. A more nuanced narrative began to take shape for some, in which the students weren’t the antagonists, but merely spectators unsure of what their role was.

The question of the BuzzFeed story is, is it true? The story of the Covington Catholic story is, what is true?

Often in journalism, we find ourselves needing more time for the story to play out.

We need more information.

We need more context.

We need the whole story.

We need to know the facts.

Until then, the hot take that is too soon, too irresponsible and too uninformed is the real black eye on the media.