To the Point for 1/19/2006


THE RECENT SITUATION with the tragedy involving the trapped miners in West Virginia brings to light a situation within the media industry and is becoming more and more prevalent — the need to get the news first, no matter what the cost.

The cost in the case of those miners was that “fast” did not translate into “accurate”; and the result was a devastating emotional roller coaster for the families of those men. As “The Media”, today’s society calls on us to deliver the news that they want to read as fast as possible. We live in an “instant coffee” society, so we can’t be caught trying to find a place to plug in our percolators.

But what’s the cost of the speed? As an industry, the media must also be mindful that when we do report something, our readers are also counting on that information to be accurate and correct. With many newspapers now posting stories almost immediately on websites, are we running the risk of sacrificing the trust that we have built with our readers for the sake of being online with a story five minutes before another outlet?

We all exist in a competitive world, but I believe that our readers will sacrifice some speed in exchange for accuracy. During the presidential election of 2000, national networks looked like fools as they bounced back and forth between George Bush and Al Gore and who won in Florida — and, ultimately, who won the White House.

Four years later, those same networks were looking at Ohio, but this time they looked like they were so afraid to make a comment that every statement came with a disclaimer. I remember the top network anchors taking turns saying “We’re not going to make the call until we’re absolutely certain of the outcome…”.

When I was in college during the 1980 presidential election, I was working at the Cincinnati Convention Center for the News Election Service, and was taking phone calls and gathering vote totals from around the country. I remember taking calls from Pennsylvania as the guy in charge was writing “Reagan Wins” on a chalkboard in front of us.

At the same time that President Carter was conceding, voters were still standing in line in California. I can’t help but think that a basic right of those people had been taken away that day.

We were fast, but were we right?

Newspapers, particularly weekly newspapers like this one, aren’t under the same timeline pressures as other forms of media; but as the Internet becomes more and more a part of our newsrooms, we are suddenly finding ourselves facing those same timeline dilemmas. What we can’t do as allow ourselves to be so focused on being fast that we forget to make sure that we are right.

Media reporters — no matter what medium they work in — need to know that our first priority is that it is factual. Does speed matter? Yes, it always has; but I would rather have a reporter take a few extra minutes to cross check his or her facts; than have them spend some time the next day writing a correction.

In the case of the situation in West Virginia, there was a very real sense of wanting to get information to the families as quickly as possible to try and ease their stress; and those “family reports” ended up being broadcast all over the world.

When there were reports that 11 of the 12 had survived, cameras were in the middle of the celebration; and when those numbers proved to be exactly the opposite; media crews were right there to make sure that the proper agencies and individuals got the blame.

A few months ago there was a situation involving an airplane that was preparing for an emergency landing in California. What was truly bizarre was that we later learned that the passengers on the plane were actually watching news reports of their plight live on network television.

What if the decision had been made that the plane wasn’t going to make it through the landing — what kind of panic would that have spread up in that plane?

The media was there first — but were they right?

Everyone wants it fast; but as readers and citizens, you also deserve the news correct.

It’s a shame that the situation with the miners and their families had to make us see that.