My old editor at The Washington Post’s Web site was fond of saying: “I would rather be second and right than first and wrong.”
It was good guidance. And it was advice that I often followed during my years as an editor at The Washington Post’s Web site. During my 10 years at The Post, we were regularly confronted with BREAKING NEWS events. It was always a tug-of-war. We forced each other to check out everything — not an easy task when you have a bank of televisions yelling at you with speculation and editors wondering why TV had the story and we didn’t. But, we sought confirmation and stayed away from skeletal one-source stories.
I remember one friend and colleague in particular who saw cable television’s Breaking News-ification of news events as having a serious, negative influence on good journalism. During the 2000 election recount, Jason was working one Saturday afternoon when the Supreme Court came out with one of its many contorted statements on the recount. One of the Web producers working under Jason posted a BREAKING NEWS headline based solely on a headline that CNN had run on television. Jason moved quickly to take it down, explaining that journalists need more than CNN — we needed actual facts before reporting.
So, that brings us to yesterday’s reporting on the Fort Hood shooting.
I was in the offices of the UMass Journalism Department, watching the coverage yesterday. Having covered and watched dozens of breaking news events, I was willing to shrug off the confusion over the number of shooters, number of dead and number of wounded in the first several hours.
However, when it became clear hours after he was reported dead that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — now the alleged shooter — was actually alive, I realized we had another victim of cable’s Breaking News-ification of journalism.
I posted a few items to Twitter yesterday about the failure of cable, television and other news reporters to get the facts right after the news came out that the alleged shooter, Nidal M. Hasan, was actually alive, not dead.
Here’s one of my tweets:
Another chapter today in how cable TV turns fiction into fact. Ft Hood shooting shows again that BREAKING NEWS! takes time to get it right
My tweets prompted one of my followers — a TV journalist — to send me an e-mail noting that the suspect’s death was announced on camera by Ft. Hood’s commanding officer. I have not been able to find that video (if you see it, please e-mail it to me,) but, whether it was on camera or not, the word of one military official was was passing along secondhand information soon became established fact.
One-source journalism is too often the norm for television and cable journalists. And, in this case, traditional print journalists filing for their news Web sites passed along the bad secondhand information.
Did anyone ask where military officials were getting their information? Did anyone try and get confirmation from hospital officials? Did anyone official actually identify the body believed to be Hasan’s?
The information from “military officials” was bad information that took hours to sort out.
As this video points out, the situation at the emergency room involved in handling victims was chaotic. Were military officials sure that Hasan was killed?
Apparently not. But, it doesn’t appear anyone asked.
We as journalists have seen time and time again that the ‘facts’ in the initial hours of a breaking news event prove to be erroneus. Balloon boy is a great recent example. Even when officials on the ground raised questions about whether the boy was in the balloon, CNN’s Rick Sanchez plodded on with the drama of the balloon.
Is this “spaghetti against the wall” journalism — report now, figure out the facts later — good for journalism? Good for Democracy? Good for communities?
What we saw yesterday — in the rush to be first — were a bunch of profiles of Hasan characterizing him as everything from guilty to unstable to having an Arabic-sounding name. Stories that framed him as the obvious guilty shooter are reframed today as a ‘suspect’ and ‘alleged shooter.’ The need to be first rather than right resulted in horrendous journalism.
Today, military sources put forth the Islamic terrorist angle. Lt. Gen. Robert Cone appeared on several morning television shows and said that soldiers who witnessed the shooting reported that the gunman shouted, “Allahu akhbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” before shooting.
Is it true? We don’t know. It’s one-source reporting from a military source right now. But, it makes for good television.