In my former life, I was a beat reporter for several newspapers before deciding to start my own business. I covered mostly education and politics (on both a local and state level), and I occasionally was tasked to cover the weekend police beat.
But long before I worked in the field, I received an education designed to train me to be the best journalist I could be from one of the toughest journalism professors around – Mr. Leland Wood.
Mr. Wood had worked in the reporting industry himself before deciding to teach the craft to up-and-coming journalists. I can’t say that I particularly liked Mr. Wood the first time I had a class with him. For as long as I live, I will never forget the comments on the
first paper I ever wrote for him: “You may want to reconsider being a journalist.” In all fairness, I deserved it. My work was sub-par at best. But for someone who had dreamed of being a writer since she was old enough to hold a pen, it was devastating to hear.
Instead of getting mad, I worked hard to improve my reporting and writing skills, and it paid off in spades. My senior thesis, which discussed whether the media should publish rape victims’ names, earned me a solid A. Of all the college work I completed, I have only kept two things to this day: my paper with the poor comments about my writing abilities, and my senior thesis with the A. Every once in awhile, I pull them out and look at them to remind myself of the things I can accomplish if I just set my mind to it.
Back in those days, reporters learned basic skills beyond just how to write. We learned how to properly research a story that included facts, not speculation. We learned that the number one rule of journalism is to trust, but verify. As I watched the Boston Marathon tragedy unfolding last week, I couldn’t help but wonder what has happened to the policy of “trust, but verify” among journalists today. I found myself more than a little disheartened to see so much unsubstantiated information being reported as fact among the mainstream media. CNN, by far, made the biggest error went it announced a suspect was in custody as early as Wednesday.
Similar bouts of misinformation were thrown to the public during the school shooting in Newtown in December. Many mainstream media outlets were reporting the shooter’s mother worked in the school and he had targeted her and her class. Not true. The biggest error – and perhaps one that could have led to a lawsuit – was the complete misidentification of the suspect in the shooting. Media outlets were fairly quick to correct their mistake, but the damage had been done.
So how are errors of this nature making it onto our television screens, on the internet and into print? In my opinion, the public’s demand for immediate information is a contributing factor.
Let’s face it: we live in an age of instant gratification. With all of the technology we have readily available to us, the majority of Americans expect instant information. The advent of social media helps contribute to that need for instant data, playing a huge role in the
spreading of false or misleading information. The Pew Research Center has estimated that nearly 70 percent of the population regularly uses sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. With the ability to post information as it’s happening - including photos and video taken by amateur sleuths on the scene – the potential for misinformation is great.
It pains me as a former journalist to see so many professionals making the kinds of reporting errors that simply are inexcusable. Yes, I understand the pressure to get the story and get it first. I lived that for over 12 years, so I am aware of the stress that goes along with reporting. However, I also was taught by a professional who made it clear that there was no excuse for “sloppy reporting,”and we certainly have seen plenty of
that in the last week.
Perhaps the only true bastion of journalism I observed over the last week came from NBC reporter Pete Williams, who made it clear to his viewers that he would not be reporting any details until he could verify they were accurate. Mr. Williams indicated there were plenty of rumors going around, but he was not in the business of reporting rumors. He exuded a perfect example of the “trust, but verify”policy that so many other members of the media had ignored.
In these crazy, fast-paced times in which we live, it is almost understandable when mistakes make it into the media. However, this should be the exception, rather than the rule. I appeal to my fellow professionals to remember the basic rules of journalism when reporting, no matter how much pressure you may be under at the time. Rushing to publish information that has not been verified just to get the “scoop” is not worth the
risk of ruining your reputation as a trusted source of information.
Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for over 20 years.