Wed. Jan 04, 2006
First Reports Almost Always Wrong
The first reports on 9/11 said a twin engine prop plane had accidently hit one of the Trade Towers (soon thereafter, we also heard about the bombing of the State Department in DC). On Election Day 2004, the first reports of exit polls said Kerry was winning. The first reports after Katrina were that the levees in New Orleans had held. And back in October, there was a terrorist attack at Georgia Tech (or maybe it was just a blogger).
The first reports are almost always inaccurate, if not flat out wrong.
This morning, I overslept a bit, having been up pretty late. When Susan woke me up, I asked “so, what’s going on in the world?” She informed me that they’d found one miner alive, and the others were dead.
I told her, with great if sleepy certainty, “no, I think you’ve got it backwards. One died and the rest are alive. I read it last night before I came to bed, in multiple places.”
She then told me what had really happened. That I’d slept through the later revelations, and that there was an ugly scene when those families had their joy ripped out of their chest.
It’s still not exactly clear how this word got out, and then spread. I’ve heard there was an initial garbling of communications from the rescue team in the mine, I’ve heard a mine foreman at the scene sent that word out in a couple of cell phone calls, and I’ve heard some man ran in the back door of the church where the families were gathered, shouting that there had been a miracle and 12 were alive.
That’s what I’ve heard. They call it “hearsay.” It was published all over the country last night, by nearly every news outlet you can imagine, including speculation about the circumstances of the one dead miner found. It does not appear there was any official announcement made, nor confirmation sought.
They just ran with the hearsay. For over three hours. I went to bed with it in my head.
Back when I was a radio program director, I hired a guy named Dave Lang to do news for the station. And in an email today, he made what I think are some very relevant points:
“To what extent should we hold the news agencies responsible for their lack of fact finding in an event like this? They (Fox and CNN) reported miners alive. USA today’s headline THEY ARE ALIVE. The reporters (I use that term loosely) were grabbing random people walking by and asking them what they thought about what was going on. Please. None of them did their job. Reporting 101. Check then double check your facts. Never so discussed by my former profession.”
Today, CNN is all over this story, and how the families were tragically misinformed. Yet I hear not one iota of self-examination. Perhaps behind the scenes they are dissecting how they handled this story.
But I seriously doubt it.
We share a bit of blame, too, I think. In our expectations. We want to know what happened, and we want to know it now. We live in the age of instant information, and our media tries to oblige us. At times, this is the result.
Know it. When a first report comes in, know that it is likely only half correct … and you can’t know which half.
And, only slightly tangentially, if you’re a blogger, there’s a real lesson here. So many seem to think blogging is about immediacy. Taken to extreme, we have the typing contest known as “live blogging,” where someone taps out each merry thought that passes through their skull while they watch some event. Imagine someone going to a movie and describing each detail over the cell phone to someone else, convert it to text, and you’ve got “live blogging.” How enlightening.
Many bloggers feel like they’ve got to post about a news event within ten minutes of it happening. They end up publishing half-baked thoughts about partially erroneous first reports, to which they later have to add … “Update: never mind.”
I can already get that from the media, thank you very much.