The prank-press conference held last week by farcical activists the Yes Men has reopened the “speed versus accuracy” debate, an argument that has taken place in journalism for a good 200 years. Craig Silverman wrote about the issue in the Columbia Journalism Review’s blog Regret The Error on October 23.
After receiving a faux-press release last week, purportedly from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announcing a shift in policy to support climate legislation in Congress, Reuters picked up the fake story, which soon spread to the New York Times and Washington Post, among others. At a mock press conference held later that day, still other media reporters witnessed a heated argument between a Yes Men impostor and a real Chamber representative who showed up to shut the stunt down.
“Hilarious stuff,” Silverman writes, “except for the fact that, prior to the press conference and while the shouting match was going on, major media outlets were reporting that the Chamber of Commerce was indeed changing its stance on climate change.” (StinkyJournalism covered the hoax here.)
Silverman argues that the stunt and its aftermath in the news is evidence that the consequences of speedy vs. accurate reporting have changed:
When the Chicago Daily Tribune sent out its famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” edition on November 2, 1948, its error did not ricochet around the world in a matter of minutes. The damage was relatively contained, and the mistake would have probably been forgotten if photographer Pierce W. “Pete” Hangge, of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, hadn’t snapped the iconic photo of Truman brandishing the paper two days later in St. Louis. [Link is original to Silverman’s post.]
In contrast, the Yes Men’s latest hoax was on the cable networks and newswires long before the instant classic comedy routine, “No, I’m the Chamber of Commerce!,” played to a rapt audience.
Errors spread quickly in today’s media environment, Silverman says, where news organizations do a deplorable job of correcting their mistakes. Reporters, now as much as ever, are sometimes more interested in getting a story first–getting the scoop–than getting the story right.
In the new world of journalism, moreover, scoops don’t last very long–compounding the need for speed. “After a few hours have passed, hardly anyone can remember who first reported an item. By then it has spread far and wide, and it’s likely that new information has been unearthed,” writes Silverman.
News organization are also stingy about crediting previous scoops, he says, mentioning an infographic from New York magazine, which spends a hugely detailed page trying to trace sources of a single day’s stories.
This tangled map of attributions shows how quickly a story can spread from paper to paper or site to site, with one publication building on another’s report, and then the first building on that, etc. New York magazine drew the map to make a point about where the news comes from, but it serves equally well to illustrate Silverman’s point about how long the news lasts.
Silverman doesn’t argue here that journalistic swiftness be abandoned. Breaking stories, after all, is a fundamental task of the news media. Rather, he proposes that now might be the time to reevaluate how we balance speed and accuracy, and maybe make some tough decisions about which stories have enough merit to rush through to press.
“Most reports can stand to be held for fifteen minutes of extra checking, such as actually calling the official number listed for the Chamber of Commerce to verify the news release. After all, if the information comes via a news release, does it really warrant being rushed out like a scoop?” he asks.
Plus, getting things right isn’t always very hard. “Often, the difference between getting it wrong and getting it right is a matter of minutes, of one or two phone calls. It’s kind of sickening to realize that journalists routinely choose such a risky practice (‘First!’) when it’s so easy to mitigate the potential damage,” Silverman writes.
The precept that its more important to get it first than to get it right is being used too often, he says, suggesting a new saying, which rings true in light of the rapid firing evident in the New York magazine chart above:
“Hardly anyone remembers who got it first, but they rarely forget who got it wrong.”
Check out the rest of Silverman’s post here.