Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 21, 2013

The ‘oops’ heard round the world: Accuracy trumps speed in reporting

By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— It was beyond an “oops” moment. In an hour’s time, I watched the reputation of my profession disintegrate on live TV in front of a world-wide audience.

Trust, integrity, factual information — words that should be synonymous with journalism were nowhere to be found last Wednesday afternoon. Instead, those seeking the latest information on the Boston bombings were fed misinformation by many major news sources.

Regrettably, we had a hand in the dissemination of bad information. It was not intentional. We posted an Associated Press story to our website that stated a suspect in the bombings had been arrested. We did not know it at the time, but the information was erroneous.

Later — after the meltdown, after the public’s trust in journalism was scarred — we discussed the issue in an afternoon meeting. As a newspaper in small-town West Virginia, we did not have a hand in the reporting that led to the incorrect news reports. But we had to own our part in the debacle. We trusted a source, and in doing so gave incorrect information to our readers.

We, too, had to carry the blame, and the shame.

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I was engrossed in work on the Daily Telegraph’s editorial page when I first realized something was amiss. With an ear tuned to the television on my office wall, I heard CNN reporting that a suspect in the bombings had been arrested. The AP — our source for national news coverage — was reporting the same and, almost immediately, we had a story on our website giving the latest update.

But then I checked my Twitter feed, where journalists near and far were reporting that the information was not accurate. The AP feed was quiet; social media was not.

While many major news sources continued to report that a suspect had been arrested, reporters were tweeting comments and links that contradicted that fact.

In was an Alice in Wonderland moment. Purported facts were going out to TV viewers and print readers worldwide that were not accurate. It was the antithesis of journalism — a profession in which fact and source checking is supposed to be a priority.

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Social media was not kind. In the midst of the implosion, tweets came fast and furiously.

“Watching CNN self-destruct in real time,” tweeted Matthew Reichbach, a New Mexico political journalist, while West Virginia journalist Ry Rivard quipped, “If The Joker were real, I think this is what the world would be like.”

Larry Ryckman, assistant city editor at the Denver Post, had this astute assessment: “Arrested? In custody? Not? Awkward reminder that breaking news reporting is often like laws and sausages: best not to see them being made.”

Others were more serious in their opinions. “This is one of those days that affirms my very strong belief ... it is better to be RIGHT than FIRST in the news world. Yes, I’m a dinosaur,” tweeted Maeve Reston, who covers politics for the Los Angeles Times.

And the Society of Professional Journalists had this appropriate tweet, “SPJ ethics code: ‘Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.’ ’’

Many of journalists on the social network were passionate while watching the mess unfold. StuffJournalistsLike tweeted, “Fran Townsend now confirming on @CNN no arrest has been made. For Christ’s sake, go to break and figure out what the hell you’re reporting.”

“We should all just start keeping a log of all the incorrect reporting that goes on out there. We shouldn’t forget it after a while, either,” wrote Tony Dobies, a communications specialist and sports writer.

West Virginian Drew J. Ross noted, “In the rush to be first and break the news, often truth gets trampled ... facts matter, truth and integrity matter.”

Soon the jokes started. Matt Johansen, head of the Threat Research Center at WhiteHat Security, tweeted, “CNN confirms: Schrodinger’s cat definitely alive... probably. Box still closed. But totally alive for sure. Or dead. (via @SarcasticRover).”

And from Times columnist James Poniewozik, “CNN: Sausage has been made! NBC: Sources say no sausage at this time. Viewer: Um, I’ll have the salad.”

Even Mountaineer fans got in on the action. “Breaking: CNN has just confirmed that Pitt Sucks! 1ST thing that [sic] got right in a while,” tweeted WVNation!

My favorite tweet of the day, however, came from Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl who noted, “From a media perspective, the Boston coverage is why it makes more sense to read the paper just once every morning on some stories.”

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In this day and age when information can be spread across the globe in seconds, it is more important than ever for journalists and news sources to stand above the social network chatter and ensure reporting is accurate.

We all want to be the first to break a story. But this competitiveness — this zeal to be the first to post, the first to print — cannot come at the price of accuracy. Readers and viewers should be able to trust their reputable news sources.

Last week’s fiasco scarred the media’s reputation and diminished the public’s trust. Regaining that faith and confidence will not be easy.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.