“Giffords Shooting Highlights a Digital News Danger.” That was the headline over a column by the Washington Post ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, criticizing his paper’s coverage of the tragic events in Tucson, Ariz. When the New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane, addressed the same subject, the headline was pithier, “Time, the Enemy.”
Both columns focused on a small but critical fact: For a brief period during that chaotic day, many news organizations reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. How and why they made that mistake reveals something important about the modern media environment.
Through a rich variety of instantaneous outlets – Twitter feeds, e-mail alerts, Facebook postings – the country could follow the “Giffords shooting” in real time. In the interest of speed, those updates often followed the adage coined by Jeff Jarvis, a new-media expert at CUNY: “Publish first, edit later.”
It’s certainly true that the Web is a self-correcting mechanism. Mistakes can be quickly spotted by an army of self-appointed critics and pulled down as rapidly as they are posted. The entry reporting Giffords’ death lasted 10 minutes at the New York Times website.
Still, a mistake was made – a big one. There is no newspaper headline preserved for history – comparable to the “Dewey Beats Truman” relic from 1948 – saying “Giffords Killed.” But “Time, the Enemy” sums up the lesson that should be learned.
The media today is under enormous pressure to produce scoops and attract eyeballs, particularly on the Web. Traffic equals ads, and ads equal revenue. And while speed has always been valued in daily journalism (a craft we practiced for many years, Steve at the New York Times and Cokie at NPR and ABC), the current climate is approaching insanity.
As Jim Roberts (no relation), a founding editor of NYTimes.com, put it, we’re immersed in a “1440/7 news cycle,” 1,440 minutes a day, seven days a week. Each minute, according to Brisbane, is “demanding news for delivery to a networked world.” And those demands produce errors.
CNN and NPR (among others) made the first mistake, reporting Giffords’ death prematurely, without double-checking their sources. Other outlets, like the Times and the Post, made the second mistake, simply repeating the information at their websites without confirming it independently. This practice is understandable – they didn’t have their own reporters in Tucson – but ultimately dangerous. And lazy. It’s a cheap way to “feed the beast” without taking responsibility for the accuracy of your own brand.
The third mistake was a failure of editing. As Brisbane reported, the Times editor in charge of news alerts initially told her writer NOT to include Giffords’ death because it had not been confirmed. But when the writer updated his posting, and added the word “killed,” the editor failed to review what he wrote. Speed trumped accuracy.
“I should have looked at every change,” admitted the editor, Kathleen McElroy. “Nobody should self-publish,” added Times standards editor Philip Corbett. “Everything should go through an editor. Ideally, it should go through two editors.”
Here’s the core of the debate: “Nobody should self-publish” versus “Publish first, edit later.” The second maxim certainly has an allure. It’s faster and cheaper and utilizes “crowd sourcing” and “citizen journalists” to get things right – eventually. Even Jonathan Landman, a digital-media editor at the New York Times, sees the wisdom in this approach.
“Readers can and do participate,” he wrote two years ago. “Their participation has a salutary effect on quality – millions of amateur editors catch a lot that a few professional ones miss.”
Fair enough. But “publish first, edit later” still bothers us. Call us old-fashioned, but that’s not the way we were trained in the business. We still believe it is the responsibility of professional journalists, not amateurs, to make sure that we produce the fairest, smartest and most comprehensive report possible.
Amateurs can help – and journalists who arrogantly ignore their input and resent their scrutiny are plain foolish. But crowd sourcing is no substitute for the careful, diligent process of reporting and editing that should happen before anyone pushes a button and releases information to the world. Corbett is right; we all need editors. And the “journalism of verification” still has a role in a WikiWorld of unedited and unchecked assertion.
Mainstream media organizations are struggling to survive. But they cannot do that by abandoning their standards or their principles. News consumers want to trust what they read and see. They still value the concept “edit first, publish later.”
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published in paperback this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Copyright 2011, Steven and Cokie Roberts
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.