I’ve been thinking a lot about the advice Steve Buttry of Digital First Media gave to a group of journalists last month on how to begin thinking “digital first.” Following Monday’s embarrassing display of bad journalism, as every news source I consulted reported unsubstantiated and too-often wrong information about the shooting at the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C., we should all be thinking about it.
Monday was, as Jon Stewart said on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” the next day, the kind of day that 24-hour news media were created for: a day of “urgent, soul-crushing breaking news.” Days like Monday give good news organizations the opportunity to compete with each other on the toughest playing field around, one on which the landscape is constantly changing and new “tips” and bits of information are coming in all the time. But on Monday, September 16, I couldn't find the good news organizations in among the others.
Much of what Buttry said in August at the Society of Professional Journalists’ convention (held jointly with the Radio Television Digital News Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists) was targeted more to print media and their online presences, and I don’t remember him speaking directly of cable news organizations covering a big, messy breaking story like Monday’s shooting. But I hope there were broadcasters in the audience listening because they needed to hear what he said as much as the newspapers, which I believe had as bad a showing Monday as most of the other news outlets I consulted as events unfolded.
I guess it’s just too tempting for them not to follow the lead, once one news operation reports that, for example, some first-responders were sent to another shooting at another D.C.-area military base. It’s too easy to dispense with our obligation to verify before publishing by qualifying our report with “someone said” or “another news operation reported ...”
As Buttry said, “Don’t give up your standards of good journalism just to be first. You don’t have it first if you don’t have it right.” I’m writing about his advice out of context here; he was talking about online publications, not live television reporting. But I think the principles apply to broadcast reports as well as online reports published by newswires and online news outlets.
“The importance of verification needs to be stressed,” Buttry said. In the online context, he advises linking to your sources because “if you can’t find something credible to link to, it might be wrong.” So, even in the live broadcast context, think about what credible sources you would link to – “it will help you do better journalism.”
I suppose news directors of live broadcast operations would say they just don’t have time to check everything if they are going to beat the competition. In a 24-hour news operation there’s just not enough time to verify every tidbit we hear and also publish it as soon as it reaches us. But what good is it to be first if your information is wrong and you then become the source of all the other media’s wrong reports?
That goes for all the media I consulted on Monday. Everyone got it wrong. There were not three shooters. There was not a shooting at another military base in the D.C. area. Who knows how much the hype created by the 24-hour news media reporting unsubstantiated, incorrect information contributed to officials’ decisions to keep frightened workers in place, and children from their parents, for hours and hours after the lone shooter had been killed?
All day Monday, I heard Buttry’s words in my head: “The importance of verification needs to be stressed.” And “you don’t have it first if you don’t have it right.”
Thanks, Steve. And thank you to any journalist out there who takes time now to reassess. We all need to be thinking about this.