Leaping Before Looking  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   January/February 2000

Leaping Before Looking   

A San Antonio debacle underscores the perils of moving too fast

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

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   » Safety First


IT WAS A CHILLING example of the dangers posed by the hypercompetitive, megaspeed media environment in which we live. Lets hope it also serves as an object lesson, a red flag (or at least a yellow one), a deterrent to runaway journalism.
In November, two San Antonio television stations and a radio station broadcast reports of a shooting or possible shooting at an elementary school (see "Going for the Fake," page 29). Given the recent litany of such tragedies, it's little wonder that panicked parents raced to the school by the dozens, two of them getting into accidents.
One problem: There hadn't been a shooting at Coker Elementary. A school employee had been shot at, nowhere near the school. He waited until he got to work to call police.
So here we go again, yet more documentation that in journalism as on the highway, speed kills.
You'd think we've seen enough of these misfires that we would learn. But no.
There's little doubt that journalism is an inexact science, as Peter Binzen, a wonderful boss of mine back in Philly, was fond of pointing out. No one should expect perfection. It is a difficult, pressure-filled profession, and mistakes are going to happen, no matter how hard we try to avoid them.
But there's a huge difference between losing the ball under relentless defensive pressure and simply committing an unforced error.
This was a case of relying on police scanner traffic and sort-of confirmations, not reporting.
Almost as harrowing as the actual "coverage" was the rationale that emerged from the defensive crouch of one of the news directors involved. Nick Simonette of KENS-TV told the San Antonio Express-News: "We were just going with what they were saying. It would have been highly irresponsible to wait on this."
Let me make sure I understand this: Irresponsible to wait until it was actually determined that there had been shooting at the school? Irresponsible to not rush on the air and terrify a bunch of parents unnecessarily?
That lame explanation echoes a point of view too often expressed about online journalism. It's sometimes said that speed, not accuracy, is what characterizes the Web world. If you've got information, get it out there and see where it goes.
This, of course, is not the approach taken by numerous responsible online journalists. Nor, as Michael Oreskes showed so forcefully in his November AJR piece, does it stand up to scrutiny (see "Navigating a Minefield").
Journalism is journalism. Facts are facts. You don't go with something until it's solid.
How difficult is that to understand?
Of course, television and radio, like the Internet, provide powerful temptations not available to print. The ability to present news as it's happening, or as soon as you learn about it, is a great advantage, and an intoxicating one.
But it is also a double-edged sword. Moving too quickly-- going with what you've got because you can--can be a ticket to disaster.
This is a weapon that has to be wielded with the utmost of care.
We seem to be entering an important and exciting new phase of Internet journalism, one in which newspaper Web sites are beginning the transition from largely shovelware versions of their print products to living and breathing news operations (see "Going Live,").
Increasingly, rather than simply adding fresh wire copy, sites are updating local stories and filing new ones during the day. Some are relying on Web-only staffers, some are asking print reporters to do double duty, some are doing a little of both.
This is a development that is as inevitable as it is promising.
But it is crucial that the commitment to accuracy that many papers bring to their ink-on-paper incarnations (and yes, this is true, the public's current skepticism notwithstanding) survive the journey into cyberspace.
One last thought: Those tempted to leap before they look would be wise to consider the consequences of moving prematurely.
After all, the driving force behind the obsession with being first, or at least not last, is competition. No one wants to look clueless or lazy. And there's no doubt that the determination to break news is largely a good thing.
But the price of being wrong, horribly wrong, far outweighs the rewards for being first.
Don't doubt that the three San Antonio stations wish they could pull back those school shooting stories, much like the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News wish they had never hit the send button on their famously premature Lewinsky "scoops."
Sometimes the race is to the swift-- but only when the swift have their facts straight.

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