If there’s one positive development in this post-Jayson Blair/MemoGate media world, it’s the realization that the faster a news outlet admits fault, the better. That this lesson had been absorbed was on full display today, as a number of papers ran stories examining their own roles in spreading misinformation yesterday about the state of the ill-fated West Virginia miners. Some admitted that mistakes were made and acknowledged the media’s own role in spreading flimsy and unsubstantiated rumors.
Even Geraldo owned up to his mistakes, admitting that he was just too darn moved by the whole scene to think clearly: “The pastor was saying a thank-you sermon on the balcony of the church and people were bouncing around like they had won the Super Bowl or the lottery,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “Eight-year-old kids were saying, ‘My daddy’s alive.’ If you didn’t get emotionally involved, you wouldn’t get emotionally involved when your baby is born.”
But not everyone was so forthcoming. Especially egregious was the reaction of the Washington Post, which we singled out yesterday for running a story that not only had absolutely no attribution, but also speculated wildly about what might be happening. Well, when Leonard Downie, the Post’s executive editor, was asked where he thought his paper might have gone wrong, he had this to say: “Our story was a reflection of what was being said at the time. I don’t regard it as our error, but as an error by the people in charge of the rescue.”
Every story, of course, is always a “reflection of what was said at the time.” The point is that if all journalists did was write that down, we might as well refer to them by that proverbial slur: stenographers. Journalists, especially those surrounded by worried and emotional families, need to vet information, need to ask where it is coming from, and then, at the very least, need to make it clear — as the Post did not — who their sources are. (In this sense, at least, the New York Times gets points for its late edition headline: “12 Miners Are Found Alive, Family Members Say.”)
Even the Post’s own Howard Kurtz wrote in his column today that, “the fault lies with the journalists for not instinctively understanding that early, fragmentary information in times of crisis is often wrong. You don’t broadcast or publish until it’s absolutely nailed down, or at least you hedge the report six ways to Sunday. This was, quite simply, a media debacle, born of news organizations’ feverish need to breathlessly report each development 30 seconds ahead of their competitors.”
These errors don’t add up to a major media scandal. But it is important for news outlets to be honest when things go wrong. Thankfully, in sharp contrast to Downie, there were many editors willing to do that. Take Sherry Chisenhall of Kansas’ Wichita Eagle, who today wrote to her readers to “explain why we (and newspapers across the country) went to press last night with the information we had at the time. But it won’t excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it.”
USA Today also ran an appropriate apology, claiming that its reporting “fell short of USA Today’s professional standards.” That was accompanied by a good wrap-up article summarizing both the hand-wringing on the part of some journalists, and the lack of contrition on the part of others.
To be clear: We’re not demanding that editors and reporters be marched to the gallows — only that they demonstrate some understanding of their own failings here. The situation reporters confronted in West Virginia is not an anomalous one. Journalists are constantly forced to make quick decisions about whether or not to believe sensitive information (think of our journalistic brethren in Iraq, for example).
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
The lesson here is that the best bet is usually to be as clear as possible about where your facts are coming from. If nothing else, perhaps that is what journalists can take from this tragedy.