After Newtown: the real toll of ‘journalistic bedlam’

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much flawed reporting as in the news coverage surrounding the horrific school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Errors abounded. News organizations identified the wrong man as the shooter, reported that the shooter’s mother was a teacher at the school and mischaracterized both the killers’ weapons and his access to the school. One flawed report said that the killer had a run-in with teachers at the school the day before the massacre.

NPR media critic David Folkenflik rightly called it “journalistic bedlam.”

The backlash was inevitable, particularly in a nation in which the news media aren’t all that popular in the first place.

Matt K. Lewis of The Week wrote a column headlined, “The media should be ashamed of its Connecticut coverage,” and detailed the poor reporting. The headline’s reference to a single “media” is revealing. The word “media” is plural, encompassing newspapers, websites, television, radio and social media. Yet indictments of the news media often target a perceived monolith.

Lewis closed his article with this observation: “I’m not suggesting we completely abolish the media. But perhaps we should curtail it. Isn’t it time for some common sense media control?”

Control by whom? The government? The First Amendment offers robust protection for a free press, and for good reason. The press’s job is to keep an eye on  government, not the other way around. These errors are maddening, but there’s no role for external forces — particularly government — to “curtail” reporting.

Yet journalistic accountability to the public does appear to be in decline.

I’ve worked in the news business for 25 years and the standard has always been clear: Report accurately. If you ever fail to do that, report back to your readers as quickly as possible with the correct information and an explanation of why you got it wrong.

We’ve seen some of that in recent days, but not enough. The Associated Press has been steadfast in its corrections policy and New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has written thoughtfully about her newspaper’s failures. But more often than not, news organizations have simply removed inaccurate coverage from websites or alluded generally to “earlier reports by the media” as being inaccurate.

The best protection for a free press is professionalism. Every news organization needs a written policy and has an obligation to ensure that every error is acknowledged and corrected in a visible way, regardless of how many others erred in the same way.

The news media also need clear standards, understood by everyone in the newsroom. Is it really enough to base identification of a mass murderer on an off-the-record remark by an anonymous police source?  Of course not. But how many news organizations set higher standards and consistently enforce them?

Much has been made of the pace of today’s media and the competitive need to get things first, but that’s not the real problem here.

Getting things right remains critical to the mission and credibility of journalism, and truth and accuracy are not graded on a curve.

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