A friend recently complained to me that a fact initially reported in a developing news story was eventually proven incorrect as more information became available. He said that was “precisely why most people no longer trust the media.”
His comment made me realize that most people don’t understand what happens in a newsroom in a “breaking news” situation.
Breaking news is news that is still happening — a fire, a natural disaster, a shooting. Time is a luxury reporters don’t have in that situation. They often have to publish the best information they have as soon as possible because the public needs to know. As the story develops, journalists write follow-up stories. Sometimes initially reported facts are proven wrong. News outlets try to avoid publishing information they don’t have confirmed. However, in developing situations, even authorities — police, fire departments — might release information that is later proven to be false. They, like reporters, are releasing their best information to keep people safe and informed. Journalists update stories with the correct information and issue corrections when they realize they have published false information.
News rarely arrives on our doorsteps in a neat little package with no loose ends. We get information in dribs and drabs. We start making phone calls, and people tell us things. We try to confirm those things to the best of our ability. How soon we publish our information is often determined by the nature of the news. News about a fire will be reported sooner than rumors of a corporate scandal.
Most news stories aren’t like a movie — completely formed and unalterable once they are released. Instead, most stories are like a long-running TV series: New episodes unfold twists and turns in the plot and prove that what viewers thought was happening in the initial episodes is actually much more complex.
For instance, our newsroom has published more than 20 stories about overtaxed ag land in South Dakota since the story broke in February. Along the way we’ve learned a lot of information that wasn’t available initially.
News unfolds this way because journalists aren’t gifted with omniscience. We don’t know all the details in the beginning. Sometimes people tell us things that they believe to be true, but it is later discovered that they are mistaken. Sometimes people with key information will refuse to speak on the record about a subject but will change their minds after we publish an initial story. Sometimes new information puts earlier reporting in a completely new light.
I see so many people eager to pounce on an entire news outlet — crying “fake news” — when that outlet gets a fact wrong in its initial reporting that is subsequently corrected in follow-up reporting. It’s as if they think reporters have some secret mission to commit libel and sway world events.
I didn’t start off as journalist. I didn’t go to journalism school, but I doubt they hold secret classes on how to mislead the public. Every journalist I’ve met since starting in this business six years ago has been dedicated to providing the public with accurate information.
We don’t make the news. We just do our best to report it. Sometimes that’s a messy, drawn out process conducted by human beings (who are therefore prone to the occasional mistake). But it’s also a process carried out by people with good intentions and who are trying to do their best. So, if they get the occasional fact wrong, you might not want to discount the entire industry.
There are few alternatives if you want mostly accurate information distributed to the public in a timely fashion.