NEWS BLOG (WSAU) There’s a 9/11 lesson that the broadcast media should learn about itself.
During a really big news story, keep crap off-the-air.
I was working the anchor desk in the New York suburbs that morning a decade ago – and the amount of inaccurate and flat-out wrong information that was broadcast by TV and radio stations in that 24-hour period was embarrassingly high. The initial reports were that a small plane, not a jet-liner, had crashed into the World Trade Center. There were conflicting reports about which one of the twin towers collapsed first (no small detail to people who had loved ones who worked in those buildings). There were inaccurate reports that morning about how many planes were hijacked. That night there was a report that explosives were found on the George Washington Bridge (not true; although the bridge was closed and inspected).
Soldiers talk about the fog of war. Journalists, particularly broadcast journalists who have to cover breaking-news live, have to fight through the same fog.
We saw some of the same problem during the Aurora movie theater shooting.
Yes – the body-count was initially wrong. There were preliminary reports of two gunmen, not one.
Those mistakes are understandable, but still not acceptable. If a reporter hears something from a patrol officer at a crime scene, is that reportable, accurate information? If something is heard on a police scanner, that information could be best-available-at-the-time, but does that mean it should be repeated on-air? Is a 'tweet' trustworth? Is a posting on Facebook a legitimate news source?
I’ve always thought the audience is sophisticated enough to know that not everything is known during major breaking news stories. And, on-air, I’ve tried to emphasize that news accounts of developing stories sometimes change as new, better information becomes available.
But what about getting a name, a very common name, and doing a quick Google-search and going on-air with the results? That’s the most-likely explanation how suspected gunman James Holmes was initially-reported to be a tea-party member. Oopps. That’s another James Holmes, who’s not 24 but in his fifties. Brain Ross, who's thought of as a world-class TV investigative reporter, made that mistake. Crap got on-the-air. A brief apology was made later.
What everyone in the news media needs to remember is that breaking news is the time when the good fundamentals of reporting matter more, not less. Double-check. Use good sources that you trust. Hold back if you’re not sure. Those are the basics that are taught to cub reporters when they start their careers. Breaking news is no time to forget them.