Demand standards, not just bluster
Media loosening standards to get story out first can make accuracy a casualty
Heading toward New Jersey’s State of the State address Tuesday and the parsing that follows, it is wise for readers and the media alike to remember that jumping to conclusions are part of what now passes for news and analysis in the supercharged atmosphere of instant information
Ushered in by cable TV news 30 years ago and adrenalized by Internet news sites during the last decade, the fierce competition for audience means guessing has taken the place of knowing.
Just look at the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona. The shooting that targeted the congresswoman also led to the killing of 6 others, including a federal judge and nine-year-old girl.
But who was dead and how many were dead was repeatedly misreported in the frenzy Saturday afternoon to get it online or on air first. Next, every other medium follows without first doing basic reporting.
I’ve seen it happen first-hand. Last year I was appalled when a new editor at a different news site ordered me to put a transportation story online that could not independently be verified.
The editor’s only caveat was to make certain the story was attributed to its original source, protecting my then-employer from charges of plagiarism -- or even worse charges had the original story been wrong.
That transparent fig leaf was good enough for an online news account, the new editor insisted.
Of course it really isn’t.
In their book Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that "the press has moved toward sensationalism, entertainment and opinion” and away from traditional news values, such as verification, proportion, relevance, depth and quality of interpretation.
The former newsmen warn that those journalistic standards have been replaced by a “journalism of assertion" which discounts if a claim is valid -- or not -- and encourages putting the claim out there as quickly as possible.
That’s exactly what happened in the wake of Saturday’s shooting.
Even after basic facts surrounding the shooting finally became clearer late Saturday evening, another assertion continued to circulate as if it were gospel: That heated political rhetoric had motivated Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Giffords and the others.
While not precisely stating a motive for the shootings, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik used a press conference to condemn the tone of political talk in his state. He also suggested that such rhetoric can have dire consequences.
"We need to do some soul searching," Dupnik told reporters. "It's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business.
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this county is getting to be outrageous.”
"People who are unbalanced may be especially susceptible to vitriol," Dupnik said. "It's not unusual for all public officials to get threatened constantly, myself included. That's the sad thing that's going on in America. Pretty soon we're not going to be able to find reasonable people to subject themselves to serving the public."
But it turns out the politics espoused by Loughner are rambling, incoherent and unclear: a man who claims Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto as favorite books cannot be said to have a clear political philosophy.
That hasn’t stopped some media from repeating Dupnik’s assertions about the affect of rhetoric on Loughner as though they’ve been thoroughly vetted and proven true.
A lack of civility in public discourse clearly is a problem worth noting. What isn’t clear is what role such rhetoric played in Saturday’s tragedy.
Journalist and readers alike must insist on verification, proportion, relevance, depth and quality of interpretation, not just asserting something first -- or loudest.
And let’s also insist that our political leaders in New Jersey do the same, rather than relying on bombast and bluster.