Friday, January 06, 2006

Mine Disaster - folo

That doctored front page posted on the First Amendment Project's Web log kind of says it all, doesn't it?

As I predicted in the earlier post, the outpouring of hand wringing, 20-20 rear-view vision, finger pointing and mea culpas (or non-answers as promulgated by some like AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman - see Howard Kurz's Washington Post column) has reached a frenzy.

You might check out two good posts by Ralph Hanson at West Virginina University that round up some of the best links and provide some insightful thoughts.

The nub of it all was well-stated by Wichita Eagle editor Sherry Chinsenall in her often-cited response: But it won't excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it.

But in this hypercompetitive media world, that will be one of the great media management challenges now that everyone, with the advent of the Internet and the ability to transmit news instantly, has effectively become a wire service. Silverman's explanation -- "AP was reporting accurately the information that we were provided by credible sources -- family members and the governor. Clearly, as time passed and there was no firsthand evidence the miners were alive, the best information would have come from mine company officials, but they chose not to talk." -- is actually in the great tradition of the wire service: "Right" is a relative term, defined roughly as "as right as we know it at this second."

This is nothing new. The AP and UPI used to go at it tooth and nail, and a 30-second scoop over "the osn" as it was known got me on newspaper front pages and words of praise from AP management. You reported what you knew and how you knew it. The AP, in its initial versions of the mine story, apparently did that, at least according to some of the various timelines (Charleston Daily Mail's) I've seen. But by 2:30 a.m. EST, the AP had started to cross over, dropping that cautious attribution that had been in the lede and taking a more breathless tone.

No doubt in my mind, this was because of the breathless tone of the television coverage, especially on the cable networks. And that's what makes the get it and get it out mentality emblematic in those old AP-UPI battles completely different now. Back then, there was this unwritten dirty little secret -- you had a buffer. It came in two forms: the time to correct something (quickly, yes, but still correct it) before it went to press and skeptical editors, not only on the New York national desk but at papers around the country, who really did ask how do we know that?, one of the six basic questions for all editors. (I've seen ledes rewritten because a skeptical editor at a member newspaper called and pressed the point.)

That has gradually eroded. Publication is instantaneous, competition is far more intense than even those old no-holds-barred wire-service days, and editors get caught up in the rush of the moment.

The old saw, "get it first, but get it right," implies a delicate balance, and in running the coverage of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two children by runing a car into a lake, I noticed that balance was gradually tipping to the get it first side. (Hint: national editors whose conversations were keyed not so much to what do we know and how do we know it than "I need it NOW!" with the not-so-subtle subtext of why didn't we have the latest TV rumor.*)

The advent of the AP news alert, a note alerting editors to upcoming major developments, followed by an urgent series, also subtly changed the equation. First, I've seen those alerts dumped directly into cyberspace and on the air. But second, they change the mindset. Now, the new development has to be summarized in just a few words to start. That can lead to dropping attribution and starts the chain of events that builds to breathlessness. (Atrribution is not supposed to be dropped in those alerts, but it too often is. The alert is a little different than the editor's notes that used to move first, which, because of their nature as notes, often was to provide a more complete explanation of what was happening.)

In the case of the West Virginia mine tragedy, it was clearly fed by cable TV, which then feeds back to the AP and local newspaper desks, which then feeds .... you get the idea.**

As with anything in balance, keeping the right/first balance from getting out of whack is bound to go horribly wrong at some point, as it did here. With tremendously more weight being put on the "first" side as every day passes, I fear too few editors and producers will have the countervailing weight on the side of "right."

As this TV mindset is incorporated into print newsrooms (as it probably must be to some extent in this evolving media world), listen very carefully to this quote in an AP story from one of CNN's top executives, and be fearful:

"Our coverage was outstanding on every level," said Jonathan Klein, the network's president.

"Unlike print, which has to live with its mistakes etched in stone, TV is able to correct itself immediately," he said. "I think the audience accepts that."

* The Smith case is an excellent early example of this growing feeding frenzy and how it develops and is powered. The initial word of the case came late on Oct. 25,1994, a Tuesday night. The story moved on state wires and was sent to New York, which took notice, but nothing special. By Thursday, we had written enough that New York wanted a longer story. Still, however, national notice was limited. I had to go out of town for an AP meeting that weekend and, as I left that Friday, I warned our desk that on a slow football weekend the story would explode on national TV news, as AP had now moved an A-wire story and as crews from the networks' Atlanta bureaus moved in. By Monday, things were in full feeding frenzy.

** As a great example of how things feed on themselves: The night that Susan Smith confessed, but before official word that her boys' bodies had been found in John D. Long Lake, we received a call from the AP national desk demanding to know why CBS Radio was running a story attributed to AP about her confession and the bodies' discovery. Panic. We had not put out such a story -- in fact, we had been scrambling for the better part of an hour trying to get some kind of official word. We could make our own deductions based on the movement of people and equipement and we had some deep background stuff, but nothing high enough, even as not for attribution, to go with. Thus ensued a three-way tussle among us, New York and Washington broadcast, which we discovered had been running the story, with us demanding the story come off the broadcast wire and New York finally ordering it off under my solemn pomise we had not confirmed everything. About 15 minutes later, we were able to confirm and then moved the urgent series, etc.
So what happened? In dissecting it later, here is what we discovered: CBS had been fed the information, apparently based on an anonymous source, from a local affiliate. It put the story on the air. An enterprising AP staffer in Washington broadcast apparently heard the story and picked it up without calling the state bureau (it was never clear whether the staffer had called CBS). Once it went out on the AP, that gave it the gold standard, and CBS decided is now had an attributed story -- one that could be attributed to AP. In essence, it was a hall of mirrors. We got lucky that time; this week the industry did not.


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