Old habits are hard to break. This doesn’t just go for individuals, but for large institutions as well.
There was once a time in this country when the term “media” basically meant newspapers. These institutions were concentrated exclusively in the Northeast and if there was a news story of any significance it would be reported there first, and then the molasses-like process of Westward migration would begin.
This usually happened on a person-to-person basis as travelers on the railways moved about the country. Then in the mid-1800’s the first transcontinental telegraph lines were installed, creating a great jump forward in information dissemination.
As different technologies, including radio and television can into existence, the concept of speed began to creep into psyche of the news departments and bureau chiefs of the major media organizations. It became important for you to “break” a story first. If you could, you might get anywhere from a few hours to a few days head start over your competition, and people would look to you first to bring them their news.
But even though being first was important, being accurate and factual was still more important. Reporters and editors would hold a story back, even at the risk of being “scooped” by their competition, in order to get confirmation that their sources, and stories, and facts were accurate. This was because if you reported something incorrectly you would have to print a retraction, and if you did too many of those your credibility would be shot, along with your readership.
Fast forward to 1980 when CNN was launched as the first 24-hour a day news network. Now the traditional “news cycle” began to contract, and the speed in which you got your stories to the public became even more critical.
As the pressure to be “first” mounted, slowly but surely the integrity of the news being reported began to slip. At first it was nearly imperceptible, but as time went on it became more obvious to those who were paying attention.
I first noticed it back in 2005 during hurricane Katrina. I remember watching Chris Matthews “lose it” when reporting that alligators were swimming up flooded streets and attacking stranded people. I remember thinking to myself at the time “wow, that doesn’t seem to make sense.” And it turned out in retrospect that there were no credible reports of what Matthews was alleging.
Then I saw Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, on The Oprah Show. Here is a quote from that show.
“They have people … been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”
This quote was taken as fact and repeated over and over in the major media, each using the same reasoning; that the previous outlet had reported it and thus was justification that it was “credible.” Similar reports were widely circulated by the media about shootouts at the Superdome, snipers firing on rescue helicopters, and “bodies stacked in the convention center freezer.”
However none of it was true. When the Superdome was cleared, six bodies were found, not the 200 that had been planned for. Of those six, four had died of natural causes; all older people who could not take the strain. One was ruled a suicide and one was a drug overdoses. At the convention center four had died, three of natural causes and one of stab wounds.
The only confirmed discharge of a weapon was by a Louisiana National Guardsman who shot himself in the leg with his own M-16 when jumped by an assailant. And no bullet holes were ever found in the fuselage of any rescue helicopters.
Though my faith in the media was shaken, I still rationalized that this was an exceptional situation, an outlier where the normal rules of journalism were hard to stick to. Then came Anderson Cooper and the live coverage of the West Virginia coal mine disaster in 2006.
I watched for hours, along with much of the nation, as the developments from a mine explosion trapping thirteen miners unfolded on live TV. Then suddenly word started to spread through various news outlets that all of the miners were safe. That they had been rescued from the abyss.
I watched Mr. Cooper go from reporting that there was “no new news” to instantly repeating over and over again that “all the miners were safe.” Not only that, but he went into great detail as to how they were all in the company offices, being prepared to reunite with their loved ones.
Then a group of distraught people walked by him and he asked them what was going on. “They are dead. They’re ALL dead,” was all the sobbing woman could say. Cooper looked stunned. “What do you mean, we were told they were all safe,” he whined. “They are not safe,” the lady continued, “They are all dead. All dead.” And they were.
Someone started a rumor that the miners were safe, and in the rush to “break” the story, one reporter repeated it, which got picked up by a network reporter who repeated it, which got repeated by another, and another. CNN not wanting to get left behind had their producers feed the info live to Cooper one the air, which he repeated like the automaton he is. Media credibility for me died that night.
Now here we are in 2012. And we have this horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And we have every news outlet trying to “break” the news, and in the process, getting almost every aspect of the story completely, and totally wrong. And for what?
The days of breaking stories are gone. They don’t exist. The internet and social media have seen to that. If you report a story, that information is instantaneously disseminated to millions of people, faster than someone can change the channel, or radio dial, or content provider. Nobody cares who is first today.
But nobody cares who is accurate anymore either.
I heard a very well-known talk show host remarking how the Sandy Hook story was “evolving” in a way that he couldn’t remember any other story doing. It wasn’t evolving. It was just being continuously corrected. Correcting all the information that had been inaccurately reported over and over, by hundreds of news persons who still think they have to “break” stories, and damning any journalistic pride or integrity in the process.
My father used to tell me when I was a kid, “believe half of what you read, and none of what you hear.” I think if he were alive right now he would say, “just turn it off. It’s all bullshit.”