Outsourcing Blame: We’re Better Than This

I read my words on the competitor’s website and thought, “Surely, they didn’t copy and paste my story as their own.”

While working for KWCH in Wichita, Kansas, I’d filled in reporting on severe winter weather one Saturday morning.  An officer-involved shooting in Salina suddenly shifted all media outlets’ attention away from the snow and ice.  A few calls to cell phone numbers I’d acquired during previous stories in Salina got me all the information I needed to update viewers online.

In fact, the other station’s web story wasn’t a copy.  It was a copy of a copy.

The Associated Press had picked up my story, sent it out over the wires with the attribution of “Source:  KWCH,” and our competition posted the story attributing the AP.

To say the journalistic slippery slope makes me uneasy isn’t quite right.  It’s that the slippery slope presents itself so often, and we’ve recently started taking the route far too easy.

We’re blaming the system instead of ourselves.

THE “DEATH”

Yes, Joe Paterno is dead at the age of 85 years, one month, and one day.  Widespread reporting Saturday night, however, had him dead at 85 years, one month, and zero days.

This isn't about the scandal surrounding JoePa's program. It's about the mistakes in reporting his death.

This isn’t about the child sex-abuse scandal that plagued Paterno and Penn State the last two-plus months of his life, though it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular downfall of a previously unblemished legacy.

This is about how a college newspaper incorrectly reported Paterno’s death and a significant portion of the journalism world said, “Good enough for me.”

I could try to recap how the thing spun so wildly and widely out of control, but Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman beat me to it in both time and ability.

This is no isolated incident in the three to four years since  journalists embraced Twitter and other social media outlets.  NPR and Fox News killed off Rep. Gabrielle Giffords early last year after a young man opened fire on a crowd of her supporters and shot the Arizona congresswoman in the head at point blank range.

Of these two cases, one person is still living.  The other’s death certificate reads he died the day after that college newspaper’s managing editor submitted his resignation.

THE POLICY

A very fortunate thing in this business is to work for good people.  I think I’ve had just such dumb luck (so far).

KWCH in Wichita has a policy (which it publicized heavily) I immediately respected and immediately resented due to the amount of extra work it demands.  Two independent sources.  Reporters and producers must confirm any information before it makes air through two sources independent of each other.

This virtually eliminates the possibility of airing inaccurate or (worse) propaganda-fueled information.

Even if my current station doesn’t advertise that we exercise the same policy, I was pleased to see it put into action recently regarding a Kansas City elected official.

THE UN-REPORTED ATTACK

What the source had just told me would be everyone’s lead if I could confirm it, and therein lay the problem.

Since I was tipped off, KMBC talked with multiple sources and confirmed off the record the report of a Kansas City elected official’s family member recently attacking someone at a local hotel sending them to the hospital.  You’ll note the three words immediately following “confirmed.”

Based on who I talked to, who other KMBC journalists with better sources than me talked to, and the original source of the information, we knew we weren’t dealing with a simple rumor.

However, when the alleged victim doesn’t file a police report (there was only an ambulance call) and the only information you can confirm isn’t on the record, you can’t report it.

I’d honestly be surprised if KMBC was the only media outlet with the tip, but no one took it to air or print.  Based on the above info, no one should have…but it would have been easy to.

THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

Many people are blaming the immediacy factor in today’s social media-centric world.  Some even blame social media itself, and for those people, I offer this example.

Last spring, I waited eagerly for news on my favorite college basketball team.  The Missouri Tigers’ head basketball coach Mike Anderson was rumored to be interested in returning to his longtime home with the Arkansas Razorbacks, and to say the coach sent mixed signals on his intentions was an understatement.

Imagine my disappointment one Saturday night last March when I logged into Twitter to see several national sports media outlets saying Anderson was leaving for Arkansas, according to “reports.”  No one, however, seemed to be offering any insight or more in-depth information than the next person. Everything came back to one tweet from a reporter at an ABC affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Since KMBC is also an ABC affiliate, we called up the reporter.  I was appalled to hear the words, “Well, it’s not set in stone.”  Twitter was ablaze with rumors because of something that was “probably going to happen.”

We then asked if the reporter had any more information on the supposed announcement of Anderson as Arkansas’ new coach “tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” he said, “when I sent out that tweet, I thought today was Sunday.”

THE UPSHOT

I just now checked ESPN.com on a hunch.  Of the front page’s top 10 stories, two stories’ titles began with “Source:  ___.”  One story quoted a “league source” in the sport associated with the story.  The other simply attributed “a source.”  I have no reason to believe either story is incorrect.  My point is I frequent a respected site often enough to know I could find multiple reports with hundreds of thousands of interested parties and millions of dollars at stake based in anonymity.

I strongly believe in protecting the people who shine a light where someone is trying to hide something.  I also support a federal shield law for reporters, but sources’ words shouldn’t become stories as they leave sources’ lips.

Moreover, the ability of a story to spread like wildfire in today’s world doesn’t necessarily mean it should.  How much do you trust someone else’s source?

Unintentional mistakes happen, and Lord knows I’ve made my share.  This is deliberate risk-taking in the name of being first.  Twitter is the tool, not the person wielding it.

When someone gets the story wrong, don’t blame the medium.

That’s too easy.

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