Journalism has always been a competitive field. The imperative to break news has long been with us.
But the goal has been not only to get it first, but also to get it right.
The Internet era has dramatically raised the stakes. With the ability to post news instantly, and with so many competitors in the fray, the pressure to publish something right away has increased exponentially.
In a piece in AJR's Fall issue, Roxanne Roberts, who co-writes the Washington Post's "Reliable Sources" column, talked about fending off requests to go with something before it is completely nailed down. "Our Web folks will ask, 'Can't we post it and say we're checking it?' " she said. To her credit, Roberts' response is, "No."
But there is a school of thought that says it would be fine if it were "yes." If others are going with a story, the argument goes, if it's "out there," get something up and keep reporting. If the original story turns out to be bogus, just correct it and move on. No harm, no foul.
Except that in many situations, an erroneous story can cause plenty of harm.
It's an approach that has always horrified me. And we have just gotten a vivid reminder that it doesn't have to be that way, Internet or no Internet.
Last Saturday afternoon NPR reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot in the head at a Tucson shopping center. The story was quickly picked up by many news organizations.
But not by the Associated Press. How come?
According to a memo by AP Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes, "Special Correspondent Dave Espo in Washington and newsman Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix each sensed that something was missing.
"Two Capitol Hill sources told Espo they thought Giffords was dead, but they didn't know it first-hand. Billeaud was talking to Arizona Democratic officials who also said they weren't sure."
Trusting the instincts of their reporters, AP senior editors decided not to go with the story. And are they glad they did. It soon became clear that NPR was wrong and the Arizona Democrat was very much alive.
What makes the restraint even more impressive is that it was exhibited not by a scholarly publication or an old-school daily newspaper but by a news outlet that had been in the deadline-every-minute business for many years when the Internet was invented, and where, in the days of fierce competition with United Press International, getting beaten by three or four minutes was a mortal sin.
The AP this week awarded Espo and Billeaud the wire service's Beat of the Week prize and the $500 that goes with it.
As Oresekes said, "This was a case where the most important thing was what was NOT reported."
What had gone wrong at NPR? According to a reconstruction by NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, it turned out the news outlet had been relying on sources that didn't have first-hand information. One problem, reported Shepard, a former AJR contributor, was that senior executives were not consulted about whether to proceed.
In a maelstrom like the Giffords story, the impetus to reveal new information quickly is powerful. It's easy to stumble. That's when it's most important to cling to journalistic standards.
"The upside of having information first is fleeting," Robert Garcia, who oversees NPR's Newscast Unit but was not consulted about the story on Giffords' "death," told Shepard. "The downside is enormous, painful. Everyone feels awful."
More than a decade ago, Oreskes, then an assistant managing editor at the New York Times, wrote an AJR cover story on the astonishing changes the Internet had already brought to journalism.
The piece included these cautionary words: "A Web site doesn't change a simple editing rule: You shouldn't run something before you know it's true."