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?