The First Shall Be Last When the Media Tries to Get the Scoop

Watch a horrible mistake unfold, and facepalm with me.

We don’t have to be first. My fellow journalists may be going into convulsions as I say that, but it’s true. We don’t. People are sick of that. It means nothing, in this age when information is almost instantaneous, and first means little more to an audience than a few seconds. Audiences care about presentation, about snappy writing, about looks and sound and branding, about reliability.

In other words, we have to be right.

I got the preening mass e-mail shortly from upper management after Joe Paterno was officially declared dead by news vultures on Sunday. We were the first to correctly report Joe Paterno had, indeed, died.

Big deal, suit-wearing men. You want I should I pin a medal on you? I remember the note from you year ago tell us to go with the shaky reports that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died, which I did, in a special report, and the e-mail you send a week after that saying you hoped we had all learned a valuable lesson.

It appears the boys upstairs have not.

Listen. News is a fast-moving business, staffed by humans. We’re all going to make mistakes. But they should be rare, and they should be examined after they happen. My favorite news mistake is someone at NBC News hitting the wrong button and Joe DiMaggio watching his own obit roll across the bottom of the screen during the program he was watching. I reported the space shuttle had taken off when in fact, the launch had been scrubbed, because someone at the AP sent out the wrong bulletin. It happens.

There was no need for what happened with the death of Joe Paterno on Friday. A student newspaper – a student newspaper! — reported that Paterno had died, basing their information on an e-mail that turned out to be a hoax. In the rush to be first, a bunch of alleged professionals went with it, including CBS News. A network should not be building their house on the backs of twenty year olds. They might have all the talent in the world and could even be running the joint someday, but they don’t have experience and cool to know when to stand back and wait, nor do they have the experience in the hot situation to source their story. They went with it because they thought it was right and because they hoped it was right, not because they knew it was right. That’s not how you do it, kids.  You have to put your journalistic heart aside — which is a horrible, terrible, inhuman thing which was probably screaming at that point I hope he’s dead and I have it — and think.

That’s something the Big Kids need to be reminded of. Breaking news is an incredibly chaotic situation, with massive amounts of information coming in very quickly. Most of it is trash. Some of it is not. But we should not be so desperate to get information on the air that we’re willing to toss aside what we do and hang our hats on what may be the half-assed work of another organization, be it a student newspaper in the case of Joe Paterno, or NPR in the case of Gabrielle Giffords, or the mistakes on the hallowed grounds of the the New York Times.

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