The Soapbox: Media, public must demand the truth

Justin Crann
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“Get it first, but get it right.”

An old newsroom adage often attributed to journalistic legend Walter Cronkite, the phrase traces its origins to venerable news agency the United Press (UP).

At its core, the phrase serves to remind reporters of the virtue of not only breaking a story, but checking a story to make sure the facts are correct and everything is copacetic before it runs to print.

It’s an important lesson that many journalists learn, either while studying at institutions that teach the craft, or through hard-earned experience in the world of reporting.

Unfortunately, in an age of new media, social media and the World Wide Web, it is fast becoming a forgotten tenet of the trade.

Much was made of an incorrect report that ran on American news network CNN when Hurricane Sandy touched down in New York at the end of October.

The report, which asserted that the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) floor had flooded during the storm, was later confirmed incorrect by sources at the NYSE via Twitter.

For those of us who weren’t working at CNN that night, it’s impossible to fully determine why the misinformation was spread on live television, but it is likely safe to assert that the immense pressure heft upon news organizations to break news was a contributing factor.

The pressure to break stories, and the subsequent boasting that follows a big break, has existed in professional newsrooms for as long as professional newsrooms have existed.

But earlier this year, Pew Research Center, an American “fact tank” that monitors, among many other things, the credibility of the media, released a report revealing that Americans’s trust in their media organizations was on a marked decline.

Among the 13 news organizations specifically included in the study, there was a six percentage point slide, from 62 per cent to 56 per cent, in “positive believability rating” — in essence, the credibility of the organizations in the eyes of the public.

In short, less than two-thirds of Americans trust that their media organizations report the truth.

It’s a sad indictment of the media industry that our credibility in one of the world’s largest industrialized markets is in question.

Conspiracy theorists and paranoia will always exist, but those forces do not explain such a general distrust of the organizations that are supposed to serve a populace and present them with factual information about the events, people and decisions that impact their lives.

It’s when news organizations get the facts wrong that people begin to distrust those of us operating in the media sphere.

Cronkite didn’t bandy about the UP slogan in order to sound intelligent; he was talking directly to the individuals — advertisers, publishers — on the business-end of the news, about the importance of credibility to any news agency.

The bottom line: a media organization lives and dies on reputation. Nothing is more important than having the faith of the public. Losing that faith, in turn, leads to a loss of subscribers (or, in the world of broadcast, viewers). Losing the viewers or subscribers leads to a loss of advertisers. Losing the advertisers leads to a loss of money.

And make no mistake: news organizations are in the business to make money.

Still, the blade cuts both ways. News organizations are pushing to get the story first — and sometimes publishing the incorrect story — because our customers are interested in new information, new stories and new scandals.

Media operatives wouldn’t chase the big break if the market demand didn’t exist to facilitate or incentivize it.

In the end, both parties must resolve to commit to the facts of a case.

The populace at large must recognize news organizations that get things right and reward them with their patronage and, in turn, the media must strive to get things right as often as is possible — even if getting it right costs them the break.

Anything less is a genuine disservice to every party involved.

Organizations: United Press, New York Stock Exchange, CNN World Wide Web Pew Research Center

Geographic location: New York

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