February 3, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
The pattern is all too familiar. Something happens fast, the news rolls in and the reporting is right – until it’s proven wrong. Afterwards, the apologies pile up but the confusion remains. The reason, however, is not a collapse of journalistic ethics or talent, but the out-of-control pace of news in the internet era. It is the endless cascade of information on social media and cable news that makes it increasingly difficult for reporters to be both right and first, with a negative impact on both the media’s reputation and the public’s understanding.
Modern reporting necessarily includes a tension between speed and accuracy. In theory, reporters find information and don’t publish it until it’s verified, leading to debates with editors and other interested parties. At the same time, they are rewarded for breaking a story first, which is recognized as a sign of tenacity and investigative skill. For decades this played out in the context of a news cycle where newspapers published in the morning, television networks broadcast at night and magazines conducted thorough reporting on a weekly basis. As a result, there was an established and deliberate routine that allowed developments to be reviewed and reconsidered. It wasn’t perfect, but there was usually enough breathing room for everyone to think first.
Technology has ruined this balance. Now, anyone with a social media account can announce the news to the world. Who needs a media credential when you have 10,000 followers and what seems like a good lead? But if you’ve ever looked at a Twitter feed during a crisis you know the result is chaos, with journalists and non-journalists alike exchanging a mix of fact and fiction that sometimes accelerates reporting beyond a safe speed. In 2013, this type of frenzied atmosphere led to a number of errors in the initial coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing (as a corrective NBC News’ Pete Williams was rightly celebrated for his precision). Many other reporter stampedes have the same origin – an overwhelming need to be first. And when mistakes are made, the media’s credibility suffers. Sometimes the results are even worse, with investigations hindered and innocent people slandered.
As we near another election it’s time to look for a solution. The media has long covered important events that move quickly, often with admirable restraint. But when responsible journalists are forced to compete with every tweet and chyron everyone loses. One solution is for major news organizations to come together and collectively formalize an extra layer of protocol for breaking news, particularly those touching on sensitive issues like criminal justice and national security. For instance, they could agree in advance to additional sourcing, improved consultations with investigating officials and a deference to caution when faced with gray areas. But a better way would be to slow down and focus on the major stories of the news cycle instead of the back and forth. Nothing would be lost except the rush to judgment.
Ben Holzer is a consultant living in Seattle, Wash., who served as Special Assistant to the President and Director of Research for the White House from 2011-2015.
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