As a reporter covering media mistakes, I’ll start with a scene-setting look at a recent breaking news event.
Confusion reigns. Journalists rush and compete to gather the latest information.
Large news organizations flood the zone. Live blogs kickoff. Scanners get fired up. Geofeedia and other tools are focused on the location and what people are saying, sharing. Officials are swamped with phone calls. People on Facebook are swamped with interview and information requests. Journalists with sources press them for information, anything.
And then, the errors. Maybe it’s a misidentification of a suspect, or a victim, or a location. Maybe people got the fundamental facts wrong. Who’s dead? How many shooters are there? An iconic building/business is flooded? Oops.
So, now you know what went wrong.
It was probably more than one news outlet that went awry. Some big ones, and some small ones, too. These initial errors were spread over social media, and were aggregated by other sites. Messy, right?
This happens all the time, I’ll tell you. It’s been happening since before there were people called journalists, but certainly since we’ve been around.
Yes, the pace of errors and how they spread is different today, I say. This requires more planning ahead of time to create “conditions for accuracy,” and it requires restraint in the moment from leaders and on-the-ground people.
Now I’m going to emphasize that the information people got wrong was at the time and in the end largely inconsequential. It would have come out anyway, or it was never important.
I make the argument that the calculation was off: this wasn’t worth rushing out. It didn’t need to be published. Why value the speed so much when that image, or name or tidbit of information isn’t going to save lives or change understanding in this moment?
I might also make a point about the lack of multiple sources used, or the fact that basic verification practices were ignored in order to attain fleeting glory. And then that glory turned to shame.
Some newsrooms, however, did a good job! I’ll point to some of those examples, as a way of trying to show the glory in restraint and verification. I’ll avoid using examples where people seem to be gloating, though. Nobody likes a show off.
Now, this is the part where I analyze the corrections offered by the people who made mistakes. They were probably inadequate. Maybe that’s because they didn’t issue a correction at all, or because the correction was vague, or because they blamed someone else for what they chose to report/reshare, or because the corrections weren’t offered on the same platforms where the error occurred.
I conclude by emphasizing the importance of preparation, of establishing values and practices ahead of time in order to guide your work when news breaks and confusion reigns.
I will try to find a new way of expressing the old saw that nobody remembers who got it first, but they do remember who got it wrong.
I’ll try to appeal to people’s self interest by saying that it’s not worth it — not worth the embarrassment for you and your colleagues, not worth whatever brief win or scoop you might get, not worth polluting an information stream already filled with noise, rumors and falsehoods.
I remind you that it’s our job to cut through those things by providing clarity and value.
You probably nod your head, and share some of the links from this piece — or the piece itself — with colleagues, and on social media.
You might also go looking for this link again when all of this repeats itself in a few days, weeks or months.
And this will be my post when it does.
This post was inspired by a recent conversation with Jay Rosen.