As I write this, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl remains missing. We all hope and pray that he will return from Pakistan unharmed. Sadly, his abduction highlights one of the problems that has always faced journalists: In their race to get things first, they often get things wrong.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Back in 1896, some newspapers reported a rumor that Mark Twain had died. He had fun with the story, telling reporters, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
But there’s little doubt that the dawn of the information age has greatly increased pressure on journalists to get stories out as quickly as possible, before other news outlets can get the “scoop”. That might explain why, two separate times, Daniel Pearl has been reported dead.
On Feb. 1, CNN reported it had received an email, claiming to be from Pearl’s kidnappers. That email claimed Pearl had been killed, but turned out to be a hoax. CNN reversed itself, and Pakistani police eventually arrested three people who are accused of sending the false email.
CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan admits running with that story was a mistake. “In the benefit of hindsight, I think we all would do a lot of things differently in this business and in our lives. But at the time, we felt like we were doing the right thing.”
But that’s exactly the point – under the pressures of the moment, Jordan and the other CNN executives decided to go with the story, even though they must have known it might be a hoax. The instant media cycle, and the chance that FOX News or MSNBC might have the same email and might run with it at any time, helped push CNN into a decision that it must now regret.
Two days later, it was ABC’s turn to report on Pearl’s death. ABC based its story on information from police in Karachi. Both MSNBC and FOX News followed ABC with the incorrect report of Pearl’s death.
Why didn’t CBS, CNN and NBC make the same mistake? Simple. They all called the Wall Street Journal and asked if the story was true. It wasn’t, and they saved themselves the embarrassment of an on-air retraction. We’ll never know why ABC didn’t make that call – but it’s safe to assume that the race to be first on the air with the news played a part.
That race leads to other problems. Too often, the media seems to be following a herd mentality – providing wall-to-wall coverage of whatever story is hot today, and then moving on with no follow up.
Remember Gary Condit and Chandra Levy? Many will argue it’s a good thing that we’re no longer being inundated with Condit coverage, and that’s probably true. But if the story was important enough to lead all the newscasts and make the front pages of newspapers and news magazines all summer, isn’t it worth at least a mention now? Is it any less shocking that Levy is still missing, all these months later?
Another major story last year was shark attacks. On July 30, TIME featured a cover story about sharks. CNN followed its corporate parent by producing a special about shark attacks. For much of the summer, the all news networks featured hourly live reports from various beaches.
But it turns out sharks were not as threatening as viewers were led to believe. By Sept. 3, CNN’s Patty Davis was reporting that shark attacks were actually down for the year. “Over the past decade, there are normally an average of 8 fatalities each year due to shark attacks…So far this year, there have only been two fatal shark attacks. So we're actually below average for fatalities. As far as overall unprovoked shark attacks, this year there have been 49, compared to last year's rate of 79.”
CNN deserves to be congratulated for giving out that information, but keep in mind that it only came out because the network was covering a fatality from a shark attack. If a 10-year-old boy hadn’t been killed two days before, would CNN have had a reporter at the beach to talk about the decline in shark attacks?
No one is going to argue that we should go back to the old days, when information traveled so slowly that the Battle of New Orleans was actually fought after a treaty had been signed to end the War of 1812. However, in this era when information is available almost immediately, journalists must keep in mind that there’s more to the story than simply having it first. It’s also critical to have it right, and to follow up on it later.