Journalists Should Take Note of New York Times Error

A photo of the exterior of the New York Times building
Even a media icon like The New York Times isn't immune to mistakes in covering breaking news. Photo © Johnathan Torgovnik / Getty Images

For most journalists, the drive to have the best coverage of breaking news provides the fuel to work fast. But in that rush, mistakes can happen.

After the mass shootings at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the New York Times found itself having to correct one of these types of mistakes. That should be a lesson for everyone in news media that being first isn't as important as being right.

How the Mistake Was Made

A Times reporter quoted a supposed Facebook friend of the shooting suspect, Dylann Roof.

It turns out, that "friend" apparently didn't know Roof at all and according to USA Today, had wanted to see if he could fool the media into reporting his comments.

That person referred to Roof's writings about everything from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the My Little Pony toy. It was all apparently made up, according to USA Today.

The Times only had the information in a web version of the story for a few hours. Even so, a Times editor explained the reason for the mistake, blaming it on a "deadline scramble", according to The Washington Post.

The Pressures of Breaking News

At some point, every journalist will face a high-pressure situation in which there's a demand for information. Either it's the demand to break a story before the reporter is comfortable with it, or the constant need for follow-up information to prove that the reporter is still on top of what is happening.

In the Times case, the initial breaking news of the shootings wasn't the issue.

They had happened several days earlier. It was the desire to advance the story with new details that no one else would have.

As we've learned from the Oklahoma City shootings and 9/11, there are going to be factual mistakes made in any breaking news situation. Sometimes, it's the investigators themselves who pass on inaccurate information, or witnesses whose accounts of what happened are simply wrong.

The dilemma is knowing what is solid enough to print, post or broadcast and what needs more checking, clarification or confirmation. This is where an editor or news director can put the brakes on a questionable story before it's made public.

The Dangers of Social Media

Social media presents its own dangers. It can be hard for a reporter to ignore what hundreds of people are saying on Twitter or Facebook. But it everyone is simply sharing the same misinformation, it doesn't suddenly become true just because it's widespread.

Journalists should have a social networking standard to abide by -- a set of rules that will be remembered in the crushing push to report breaking news. News organizations should have their own policies.

Social media tools can be a great way to find sources and dig for information. But in the back of any journalist's head should be the knowledge that people can hide behind fake identities and false information, just waiting to poison a news report.

Holding Your Standards Even When Pressure Mounts

Breaking news can happen at any moment. The mark of a good journalist is to manage the adrenaline rush with common sense convictions to stick with your gut. If in doubt, have a supervisor check it out, either the entire story or the individual facts.

 

In the Times case, the reporter was no rookie, but a seasoned professional. That's what proves that these mistakes can happen to anyone working in news. The Times deserves credit for taking action swiftly when it knew an error had been made. Correcting errors quickly and publicly is the best way to retain your credibility.

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