Saturday, February 12, 2011

ND prof on breaking-news errors - 'Don't rush it'

Police and Secret Service agents subdue gunman John Hinckley Jr. after the shooting of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The on-again, off-again departure of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak – he finally stepped down after conflicting reports had him either leaving or staying– hit an increasingly familiar theme in the media.

The reasonable response to any piece of major breaking news today would be, “Is it true?” And a Notre Dame professor of American studies and journalism sees more room for doubt all the time.

Robert Schmuhl was reminded of this during last month’s coverage of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. At one point, false reports circulated that she had been killed.

“I think it was an illustration of speed becoming more important than accuracy,” Schmuhl said.

“And I think one of the dangers that we run into today is that there are so many different outlets competing for news that there is almost a mania to be the first with a story like that."

Schmuhl directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at Notre Dame and is the author of books including “Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality.”

He spoke Feb. 11 with host Ed Ferenc on “America's Work Force Radio” originating from WERE-AM, Cleveland.

(A podcast of the show can be heard here. The interview begins at 15:10.)

Schmuhl noted that it was 30 years ago next month that Ronald Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt. ABC News (video), and others in the hectic live coverage of that day incorrectly reported that press secretary Jim Brady had been killed.

“I remember the outrage that was directed at ABC, and I can remember the moment itself when Frank Reynolds, the anchor, said ‘Nail this down – let’s get this right,’” Schmuhl said.

The national response was different after the false reports about Giffords.

“There was some mention that these news institutions got it wrong, but it wasn’t a big deal. Why? Because we’ve become so jaundiced in our view of the media - ‘Oh another mistake?’ And that really is what contributes to a decline in trust in all of the different sources of media.”

The days are long past when a television anchor would be called “the most trusted man in America” in a national poll as Walter Cronkite of CBS was in 1972.

Cronkite is said to have lived by a version of the old journalism maxim, “Get it first, but first get it right.”

Schmuhl said newsrooms have to resist competitive pressures if they want to protect their credibility.

“You don’t rush it,” he said.

“The impulse now is to get it up on the Web, get it on the air, when it really should be, ‘is this factual, is this accurate, is this the best version of the truth that we can provide our audience right now?’”

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