It’s time for another of those cautionary notes that are occasionally necessary in this always on, always reporting, always posting world.
The reporting on last week’s Washington Navy Yard shooting, which was essentially an eight-hour ongoing breaking news story, was a tragedy of errors, thanks to a combination of premature reporting and, apparently, ill-informed sources.
Not to belabor the issue, but when the number of shooters is wrong, the weapon is wrong, and even the name of the shooter is misreported in some quarters, nothing is right. And in an age of tweets and text alerts and instant crawls, it’s actually even more imperative to keep “oops, this is what we really meant” from becoming the New Normal. As infuriatingly tempting an out as that is, reporting on any story—much less one with so many lives at stake—should not be an exercise in getting it almost right fast, and eventually reordering all those “almost right” points into the real story. This is still journalism, not “52 Pickup.”
There was plenty of responsibility to go around, so this is not a finger-pointer—although it is a fingerwaver, since there was a lot that went wrong. We all need a reminder of why it is so important to nail down the facts, which is that millions of people wind up getting those “facts” from cable and broadcast news outlets. They have the resources and boots on the ground to be there first, and for the long haul. But everyone who fills those boots also needs the discipline and experience to make sure the story is solid. It sounds elementary, and it is, but sometimes the fundamentals get lost in the excitement of tantalizing tips that can draw a crowd online or on-air.
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