Walking back the news, or not

Walking back the news, or not
An uncommon headline

The issue came up this morning on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” The story in question was the one about allegedly drunk Secret Service agents crashing into or through a White House security barricade. At least that’s how the story was blasted in headlines across the nation. Far more modest were the subsequent reports that corrected the story and told us the agents in question were driving at an estimated 1-2 mph and had “nudged” a barrel, with no damage to the car. And there’s been no proof they were drunk.

Mark Ambinder, a writer who, to his credit, apologized for how he first reported the Secret Service story, spoke of the deficiencies in our media and how subsequent corrections or changes to a story rarely get the same exposure as the original story. Politico, the outlet that published Ambinder’s story, refused to publish his apology; he was forced to take it to another outlet. And I commend him for doing so.

Media, of course, focus on breaking news, spectacular news, exciting, provocative, disaster-filled news. And once a story has been sufficiently trumpeted in the headlines, it sinks into the shadows of newer, fresher news. Follow-ups and corrections or retractions (if there are any) usually get much less attention than the original stories. They aren’t nearly as exciting. And other than usurping time and space that would otherwise be devoted to breaking stories, there’s no good way to bring them to the attention of readers and viewers. When was the last time you saw “Breaking news: We were wrong”?

It’s a problem as old as the media. But it shouldn’t be exacerbated, as it so often is, by reporters resorting to inadequate fact-gathering in their rush to be first and by their employers who rush to print or air with hyped headlines aimed more at grabbing audience share than at accurate, thoughtful reporting. The old question about accuracy still applies: “If you don’t have time to get it right the first time, when will you have time to fix it?”

Or will you even try?

9 thoughts on “Walking back the news, or not

  1. After reading several articles related to the story in the magazine “Politicol” by author Mark Ambinder,I truly wonder if that magazine can be trusted to check out a story BEFORE they publish it?

    1. Oh Politico isn’t alone in that. Far too many media outlets publish or broadcast without adequate fact-checking beforehand. More important to be first than right. Market share. Advertising. Money. Truth and accuracy take a back seat.

  2. Sadly the “drunk agents crashing” will live on in everyone memory, and I doubt the reporters or editors care much – the drunk story sounds better than nudged a barrel

  3. Good post, and I agree. It occurs to me that journalism has conceived of numerous awards for itself, many for newspapers, but I know of none that roasts those who screw up. It has been done for bad movies, so why not a counterpoint for the Pulitzers?

    As for the Secret Service scandals, that is a problem I think will not be easily solved. What kind of person would seek that kind of job? Someone intelligent (of course) and ambitious, but also a risk-taker and a seeker of adventure. Probably not a family person, but someone who likes to travel. The military has plenty of such and one characteristic of them is an enjoyment of camaraderie and cathartic celebration of such. If you change that culture, you imperil the group dynamics that make them effective. Seems to me.

    1. The Secret Service has its problems, as do most organizations, but it remains to be seen whether this latest incident is actually a problem or just a case of misreporting and exaggeration. I’m certainly not criticizing them and don’t know enough to suggest they make any changes. They have a new guy in charge and I’m content to let him do his job. As with everything else in Washington, much of the criticism is probably politically motivated anyway.

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