Late Breaking--Sometimes Broken--News

Two incidents the same day lead the TV viewer even deeper into questions of network credibility.

by Rosemary and Walter Brasch

    WNEP-TV, a large regional station in northeastern Pennsylvania, led its noon news, Friday, Sept. 11, with the announcement that there was finally a compromise on the state budget.

    The legislators have been playing politics, stalling, and delaying for more than two months, leaving Pennsylvania the only state without a budget. To the viewer, it seemed that the executive branch and the legislative branch finally figured out that the people's money needed to be budgeted and used. This would have been great news--except that in the same story, we also learned there were still some details to be worked out.

    By the evening news, Gov. Ed Rendell said there was still much to be done and there was no solution, and it may still be weeks before he could sign an acceptable budget. The breathless "breaking news at noon" was just another instance of not verifying information before putting it on the air.

    Earlier that day, the Coast Guard was conducting a routine low-profile pre-planned drill on the Potomac. The Coast Guard conducts such drills about four times a week in that area. The President was nearby, having delivered a speech honoring those who died eight years earlier on 9/11. As part of the drill, one of the participants audibly said, "bang, bang, bang." Apparently, CNN, which was monitoring a Coast Guard radio frequency, didn't hear anyone say "This is a drill; this is a drill," something that is routine communication for--well--a drill. Four minutes after "bang, bang, bang" aired, the Coast Guard even stated "Scenario break."

    Unless you're a TV network desperate to score points by being the first to broadcast what it thought was news, you're as likely to think there was actual gunfire as you are likely to hear someone say "arf, arf, arf" and think a real dog was barking.

    Nevertheless, CNN rushed onto the air with what it labeled as breaking news, breathlessly telling its viewers there was an incident on the Potomac and that shots were fired near the President. Reuters news agency picked up the CNN report and tagged it as "urgent," followed by Fox News, which cited Reuters.

    Based upon the CNN reporting, the FAA closed National Airport for 30 minutes and delayed 17 flights, and the FBI rushed a rapid response team to the site.

    The Department of Homeland Security is now conducting an investigation. But this investigation isn't focused upon CNN for inaccurate reporting, nor upon the FAA or the FBI for not verifying the information. This investigation is of the Coast Guard, which did what it is supposed to do--conduct drills and protect America's shores.

    The government can't investigate the media for inaccurate reporting. Nor can it demand that any news outlet do the most basic fact checking before rushing a story into print or onto the air. As viewers watch "the most trusted name in network news" or the network that proclaims not only is it "fair and balanced" but it's "America's News HQ," perhaps they should demand that the networks begin each of their stories with "Did you hear the one about . . .?"

    Nevertheless, if these were the only two instances of a vacuum in media credibility, it might be shoveled aside. But what happened in one day is just a part of the problem, and one reason why Americans, sometimes unfairly, believe there is a significant problem with media credibility.

    Joseph Pulitzer, one of America's most respected and powerful publishers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, once said there are three rules of journalism--"Accuracy! Accuracy!! Accuracy!!!" The media's failure to verify the truth violates not only Pulitzer's three rules for journalists, but also a basic lesson of Newswriting 101, now forgotten in the 24/7 ratings-obsessed news media--it's more important to get it right than to be the first.

[Rosemary and Walter Brasch are award-winning columnists. Rosemary is also a former Red Cross national disaster family services specialist, secretary, and labor issues college instructor. Walter Brasch is a former newspaper and magazine reporter/editor. He is a professor of journalism and author of 17 books, including Sex and the Single Beer Can; Probing the Media and American Culture. You may contact the Brasches at brasch@bloomu.edu]

Tags: accuracy, Coast Guard, Homeland Security, Media, media credibility, news, television (all tags)

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