Today, a gunman opened fire in Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport, killing a TSA agent and wounding an as-yet unconfirmed number of people. Like other tragic breaking news stories of recent months, from the Newtown shooting to the Boston Marathon bombing to the Washington Navy Yard shooting, news reports were riddled with false information in the immediate wake of the event. Numerous outlets including the Los Angeles Times and NBC News reported that the gunman had been killed, which was not true.
The most egregious mistake however was committed by the Globe and Mail, which spread an entirely false report that ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden had been killed in the attack. The false report was bad enough, which was sourced by a fake Breaking News Twitter feed. But what was really awful was that the Globe listed Reuters and the Associated Press in the byline of the incorrect story, as if they were the source of the bogus information.
So now’s the time for media pundits to throw up their hands and ask: “Why do news organizations keep doing this?” Except now we’ve heard this song so many times that some wonder whether it’s even worth bothering anymore. At Politico, Dylan Byers poses a question that’s seriously worth pondering: “Are breaking news mistakes even worth covering anymore?”
Byers doesn’t have an answer. Is this just the way breaking news operates now, he asks? No time to waste waiting for a confirmation when there’s airtime to fill, pageviews to maintain, ratings to boost?
Maybe. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s impossible to stop fake tweets, photoshopped pictures, and rabid Reddit accusations. In fact, we shouldn’t want to, at the risk of preventing legitimate witnesses on-the-ground from sharing valuable, truthful reports.
But there’s still a difference between a random bystander and a journalist. It’s not a name on a masthead or a huge Twitter following that makes someone a journalist. It’s the compulsion to pick up the phone and verify a piece of information before sharing it with the world. Or, at the very least, if you’re unable to completely confirm something, at least think about if it makes sense (Michael Hayden killed at the airport? Pretty unlikely) and be completely transparent about where you got the information (in other words, don’t try to pawn it off on the AP or Reuters).
I could list off all the reasons newspapers should slow it down during breaking news events, reasons that have almost become cliche by now. “No one remembers who got it first.” “Better to be right than first.” But it’s simpler even than that. News organizations have one job and one job only: Tell the truth. Seriously, that’s it. It’s more important than being first, or having the best GIFs in your story or the snarkiest headline. You just gotta not print lies, man.
Now, was that so hard?