Friday, April 19, 2013

This Just In: Journalism in Critical Condition

There are many more tragic victims from this week’s horror.  But one certain casualty is our trust in journalism – for those of us who still had it.   I am one who did.

As someone who studied journalism and spent the first part of my career calling myself a journalist, I take the profession and its role in society quite seriously.   And while I am also not foolish enough to lump all journalists together, after this week it’s safe to say the profession as a whole needs a gut check.

The offenses since Monday have been too many to mention.  The first and primary offender was, is and will forever be the New York Post, which entered the week as a quasi-journalistic outlet to start.  The next time anyone has the urge to describe a New York Post front page scoop as news, they should get a second source – and not the National Enquirer.

But this problem goes well beyond the much-begrudged Murdoch tabloid.  Almost every major news-reporting outlet has taken their lumps this week.  CNN and AP reporting a suspect in custody was the second most egregious offense, causing all the other media outlets to scamper for the courthouse.

The Most Trusted Source In News...
The list of “news” that was subsequently revealed to be wrong is much longer:  The unexploded bombs.  The Kennedy Library explosion.  The picture of the man on the building.   The photo of the grocery bags next to the mailbox.  The Lord & Taylor video camera.  The first reports that police had “identified” the bomber, when all they had was a clearer image.  The erroneous reports of a suspect in custody.  The “bag men.”  All of these were reported and spread by more than one outlet.  Not to mention the endless “speculation” from experts about what this tidbit or that rumor could mean. 

The offenses continue, big and small.  And I think I know why.

Just this morning (Friday, April 19th) with one suspect dead and the other on the run, an MSNBC anchor interrupted her guest to read a tweet from the Boston Police Department.

She said, this tweet just in from the Boston Police Department.  Then she paused, as to show some level of journalistic concern about what she was going to read aloud to hundreds of thousands of viewers  -- MSNBC, so maybe thousands --  and she asked her cohost if the twitter handle was definitely the Boston PD.  He said, “Uh-huh.” And she announced, “Confirmed! This just in from the Boston Police Department.”  Then, she read the tweet saying that the Boston PD was going to detonate a device in a certain neighborhood, as a warning to residents.

Confirmed?  Is that how we confirm stuff? 

After she read the tweet, she went back to the expert guest to ask what this could mean.  He said that police were possibly exploding the car the two suspects had been driving.  And I thought to myself, that’s probably wrong. 

This minor scene was emblematic of the ones repeated a hundred times across all the networks, pretty much 24-7 since Monday.

Journalists used to wade through the sea of rumors and report what they knew was accurate for us to consume. They were wrong at times, but more often they were right.   Now it seems many outlets are content to report the sea of rumors first, and let us all wade through it together.

To show the truly sad state of things, internet sources like have taken up the role of debunking reports that are coming from so-called “mainstream” media.   That’s the state of affairs.  (And thank you Gawker for doing so).

Why are things so bad in journalism today?  Some of it is obvious.  For one, the need to scoop has outpaced the desire to be accurate.  And this is certainly not meant to apply to all journalists.  Most I’m sure, and I know quite a few, still want to be accurate above all else and are themselves sickened by the failings of the profession as a whole covering this story.  Yet, there is no doubt that the collective profession failed this week.

Why does it matter? We learned that today.  When it was reported that the City of Boston was ordered to shelter in place,  I didn’t believe it at first.  Last week, I would have.

The answer to the problem may be a simple one.  When I went to journalism school, we were told to double source everything.  Clearly, most offending outlets failed to follow this simple rule.  And all week, rumors led to speculation which led to headlines.  Before the CNN flub, a law enforcement "source" was the standard.  After the flub, that network at least started including the phrase, "sources confirm."  Note the plural.

And the answer may be a little more complex.  Maybe it’s time for an industry-created commission on the state of journalism.  I hate commissions.  But this is a case where one is needed.  The same way the major news outlets come together to figure out Presidential exit polls, maybe there is a need to set up and establish a new (or renewed) set of self-imposed industry rules.

To be fair and accurate, there have been examples of good journalism too.  Whenever I wanted to know what was actually happening, I turned off the television and went to the Boston Globe.  Maybe they had either better sources or better rules, but the Globe got most everything right and avoided most of what was wrong.

Few others devoting 24-7 coverage to this gripping story can say that.  And that should make all of us concerned.


Anonymous said...

Spot on Cort. I just shared it.

Mike said...

Hey Cort,

I think that the root of the problem is Ted Turner's dream of 24/7 television news. That's a damn big news hole and filling it is hard, especially during a breaking news crisis when we've come to expect commercial-free, non-stop broadcasts and in the Internet age constantly updated Twitter streams and scrolling tickets on websites and TV.

Rather than waiting to go to air or print until we had confirmed facts from multiple official sources and vetted witnesses, the public now watches the newsgathering process. It's always been a messy process. As a reporter you hear rumors and check them out. So many things you hear turn out to be incorrect, and the bigger the story in all facets (number of people involved, physical area covered and just big as in important) mean more leads to chase. With the national reporters it's often even harder because they're parachuting into a place that they don't know.

But even the local reporters who are plugged into their beats with tons of source are stuck during big breaking news. In these situations, information comes out in irregularly timed dribs and drabs, at least until a designated public information officer sets up a press briefing area.

Because broadcasters are taught that dead air is a cardinal sin, though, they can't just constantly repeat the same three facts and "we don't know." So they end up filling time with speculation. That used to just mean rounding up as many people who claimed to be witnesses as possible, no matter how unreliable eyewitness testimony actually is.

But the Twitter/Reddit age means that there are far more "sources" than just those witnesses, so they use the additional unreliable sources (hey, at least we're not repeating ourselves!). The one good thing that the Internet has done is bring out additional critics and checks against this.

I was happy to see Jake Tapper of CNN exercise some restraint last night. I was sad to see that neither MSNBC or CNN was quoting the Boston Globe, which has been awesome with this.

For many in this age of knee-jerk "blame the media" and default "you can't trust the media" reporters/networks are damned either way. If they're not interrupting regular programming with constant coverage, then they're wrong for not recognizing the gravity of a situation, but then when they go live and commercial-free there's not much to report and they're stuck vamping on air for hours, which means showing the public the messiness of the reporting process—chasing incorrect leads and debunking eyewitness accounts and initial information, sometimes even from the authorities who get stuff wrong, too. (THIS SHOULD NEVER MEAN REPORTING SCANNER CHATTER THOUGH.)

I'm not sure if there's a spell we can cast that fixes this, but I think that the fundamentals we learned in J-school should never go out of style. Verify verify verify. Use language carefully. I think that in our age we have tools that can help broadcasters fill air with facts, not speculation, too. I liked how CNN used Google Earth to show the area. Those are easy to bring in, use them.

Take more time to do situation resets. Use graphics. ID everyone you put on camera and explain who they are and why you're interviewing them in an on-screen graphic. The reporter should be reminding the public that they're watching the reporting process. And stop being so afraid of sharing information and using attributed information from a credible source like the local newspaper.