The Aurora shooting massacre is a senseless tragedy that has created a national discussion on issues such as gun control and mental health. It is also likely the topic of discussion in newsrooms across the country, but for very different reasons.
A major news event such as this once again displays the dangers of covering breaking news. In any newsroom the goal is to be first. First on the air, first with new information, first with the story, etc. But we have seen how that drive to be first can sometimes come at the expense of being careful and, in extreme cases, at the expense of being right.
I once worked with an anchor who sent a memo to the entire news staff outlining what our strategy should be for covering breaking news. It wasn’t earth-shattering and didn’t break any new ground, but it did include this motto that most news outlets follow as well: “We’ve gotta be fast and first”.
I would add this corollary: “It’s best to be first, but you better be right.”
Being first is the goal. It builds a news organization’s reputation as being the place to turn to when news happens. But even more important is the outlet’s brand. If you’re first, congratulations, that’s great. But make sure you get it right or you end up damaging the brand. You only have to go as far as Brian Ross’s reporting during the height of the chaos of coverage last week to find an example.
Now, ABC News has nothing to worry about when it comes to its brand. They are a highly regarded news operation and will continue to be after this incident. In addition, Brian Ross is a respected journalist with a strong reputation and will continue to be after this. Unfortunately, they became one of the storylines in the coverage of the Aurora tragedy: sloppy reporting in the rush to be first. A similar criticism was made of CNN and Fox News in their coverage of the Supreme Court’s health care ruling.
These examples and countless others should serve as a warning to all journalists.
It’s best to be first, but you better be right.