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6 conflicting headlines: Who's telling the truth? And how do you know?

KGUN9 assignment editor Ina Ronquillo checks the web on a typical news day

6 conflicting headlines: Who's telling the truth? And how do you know?

CREATED Mar. 2, 2012

Notes by: Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director

The fact is well known within the news industry that certain stories, if reported incorrectly or irresponsibly, can lead to a public panic.  Reports of school shootings fall into this category.

On Thursday, a school shooting in Willcox was widely misreported in local, state and national media.  Here is a sample of the various headlines appearing simultaneously on various Tucson, Phoenix, and national radio, TV and newspaper websites around 5:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon, which was more than two hours after the shooting:

1.  "Willcox schools on lockdown following shooting"
2.  "1 student shot, wounded at Willcox High"
3.  "Willcox schools locked down after shooting... no one was injured"
4.  "1 student shot, wounded at Arizona high school"
5.  "Willcox lockdown ends; no student was shot, says superintendent"

And then there is this headline, from a national and well respected news organization's website.  I'm not totally clear on just when it first appeared but it was still live on the site's national news page as of 12:30 p.m. Mountain time Friday afternoon, long past the point where most other media had changed their stories to show that although one student had been injured, no one had been shot:

6.  "Ariz. student hit by bullet intended for man at ballgame"

So -- Six headlines.  Each mutually conflicting.  Only one can be right.  Which one, and how do you know?

I'd like to explore that question with you in this column.  In places what I have to say will seem self-serving, and it probably is.  But I want to invite you to think about some very serious issues facing journalism today, to discuss those issues, and to take some action.

First, a behind the scenes look at what went on in KGUN9's newsroom when we learned of this story in mid-afternoon.

A shooting of this type falls into a category TV newsies call "spot news" - meaning any type of urgent, breaking, unscheduled story, usually involving public safety issues.  The tension in the newsroom can go right to the top of the scale.  Voices get tight.  People speak more loudly, with an urgent tone.  Sometimes several people speak at once, causing others to talk even more loudly to be heard above the din.  Eventually, some people stop speaking to individuals, and instead address their comments to the room at large, as if they had a bullhorn.  People work the phones like mad.  Information comes in fast and furious, via phone, e-mail, twitter, Facebook, text message, and so on.

It is so easy to make a mistake under those conditions.  When police then shut off all official information, as happened yesterday, and your competitors are reporting things that you can't confirm, the pressure becomes immense.  It is a perfect recipe for bad reporting.

You could see those forces in play on Thursday in our newsroom.  One person shouts out (I'm paraphrasing here for purposes of dramatic re-enactment):  "I have a school employee on the phone!  She says someone was shot!"

Someone else shouts:  "Great!  So that's confirmed?" and rushes to a keyboard.

I shout, "Wait!" And to the first person, "Who is she, and how does she know that?"

The news staffer answers, "She says a student told her, and everyone is saying that!"

My answer, addressed to the newsroom:  "Folks, that is not confirmation and we will not go with that.  Nothing on Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else."

People nod.  Moments later, someone else who was on the phone during this exchange hangs up and asks, "So I hear we now have confirmation that a student was shot?"

No, no, NO!

One voice sings out that a station has now posted something on Facebook saying that a victim had been shot.  Moments later, a voice announces that the competitor has taken down the post.

And so it goes.

In a situation like this, when "everyone" says something happened and one or more competitor appears to be reporting rumors as fact, you have a decision to make.  Do you join in the rumorfest?  Or do you sit on the story until you can be sure of your facts?

In the 21st century few media outlets sit on a hot breaking story any more.  Way back in 1999 respected journalism scholars Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach documented what was then a new phenomenon in their book Warp Speed, which showed how the Bill Clinton intern scandal rocketed from rumor to the mainstream headlines without much of a pause along the way for actual fact-gathering.

The modern media age, with its always-on mainstream, underground and social media, looks nothing like the news landscape I grew up in.  Once upon a time, when a tip came into our newsroom, no one knew about it but us and possibly three or four competitors.  The public was not going to learn about it unless we or one of our broadcast competitors decided to go on air with it.  In making those decisions news managers applied journalistic standards, not the least of which is, "Is the tip true?" 

Not anymore.  Whatever else journalists are today, they are not gatekeepers.  Now, when a hot breaking news tip hits the newsroom assignment desk, like as not it's already out there on the Internet.  It could be, in fact, that we found out about it from a competitor's Tweet, which in turn might be referencing other "media reports" as the source for the story.  Remember headline #6 referenced above?  The source to which that well known mainstream news organization attributed its story was, quoting now, "news reports."

Really?  If “news reports” are supporting your story, what’s supporting theirs?  By this process, the act of publication by any news organization anywhere suddenly translates into "confirmation" sufficient for the entire world to regard the information as established fact. 

And that is just nuts.

But it’s absolutely no mystery how and why this happens.  The competitive pressure to be first is beyond description.

Take the case of a Texas station from a few years ago.  It learned that police were on their way to investigate a report of a shooting at a local school.  The station rushed this report onto the air.     The information was precisely true and totally wrong.  Police were indeed on their way to check out a report of a shooting at a local school.  But on arrival, officers learned that the shooting did not happen at the school.  No students were involved.  The wounded victim, shot somewhere else, had simply shown up on school grounds asking for help.  Ooops.  Sorry about any parental heart attacks our premature news report may have caused.  And we're glad your kids are OK.  Give 'em a hug for us.

The competitive pressure not to be last is every bit as intense as the pressure to be first.  Even if a given newsroom didn’t break the story, staffers do not want their team to be odd man out, sitting on their hands while everyone else is standing on a mountaintop blasting out the news to the world.

At KGUN9 News, we have faced the question of how to handle unconfirmed reports that other media were publishing many times before.  The most dramatic example was the January 8 mass shooting.  Virtually every news organization in the world was claiming that Gabrielle Giffords was dead.  But we had not been able to confirm that to our satisfaction, so we did not report this information as fact.  That led some of our viewers to email and call demanding that we get with the program.  Our anchors then acknowledged the feedback on air and explained to viewers why we were not confirming this report.

Honestly, I fully expected for us to get creamed that day.  The reports of Giffords' death were widespread and seemed credible.  I personally assumed they were probably true.  We had eyewitnesses on the phone assuring us that it was true.  But we had not confirmed it from a source we deemed to be sufficiently credible and knowledgeable.  So we didn't report the death as fact.

In journalism, the word "confirmed" used to be considered sacred.  You didn't say something was "confirmed" unless you were willing to swear to the truth of the statement on a mile-high stack of Bibles or whatever other creed you hold sacred.  Some of us old dogs still feel that way.  But look around.  How many news outlets still operate by those principles?

As a journalist and as a newsroom leader, I don't claim that either I personally or the news organization I lead are anywhere near perfect.  Not by a long shot.  No one bats a thousand.  Within the last two weeks, I have had to post corrections to a story that were made necessary by a mistake in which I personally shared fault.

But that leads to my next point.  The old values say that when you make a mistake as a journalist, you correct it -- explicitly.  That is not what happened Thursday.  The news organizations responsible for the incorrect headlines noted above did not issue any specific corrections or retractions.  Instead, they simply changed their stories and moved on. 

In the case of saying that a lockdown was underway when in fact it had ended -- fine, you were a tad late with the update.  No big deal; it happens to us all.  Just fix it and then go about your business.  But if you've misreported an injury or wounding, especially in a school environment?  That is another matter entirely.

I once knew a lying liar who, when challenged on a fib, would simply blink his eyes, change his story and keep talking as if nothing had happened.  That caused people to form an opinion about his character. They considered him to be a lying liar.

I say all this not to scold those who got the story wrong -- although I'm sure they'll take it that way and that I'll hear from them about that (as I have in the past -- this is not the first time I've climbed up on a high horse about journalism issues).  I say all this to make this point to news consumers:  how do you want the news industry to behave?  And what are you going to do about that?

There is a school of thought that not only is there nothing wrong with instantly reporting a hot unconfirmed rumor, but that the public demands it and that journalists are going to have to meet that demand to survive in the modern media age.  Late last year I got into an argument with a viewer on this very point.  Nearly one year after the January 8 shootings, when it was a firmly established fact that Gabrielle Giffords was very much alive, this viewer still held a grudge that KGUN9 had not initially reported her dead.  That was what everyone else was reporting at the time, she said, and KGUN9 should not have withheld that information from the public.

I belong to a different school of thought.  Certainly, news organizations (mainstream or otherwise) that immediately publish the unconfirmed rumor will survive and even thrive in the future.  In fact, any bozo with a smart phone can get into that business.  But the best hope for survival of at least some traditional mainstream media is to establish ourselves as the place you go not to learn of the rumor, but to find out whether the rumor you heard someplace else is true.

Whether that school of thought turns out to be correct is up to you, the viewer.  Newsroom survival will be governed by audience acceptance and news consumption patterns. Your viewership is your vote.  So is the "comment" button.

What are you going to do?

Note:  KGUN9's headline was #5 listed above, and was precisely correct.  Many thanks to Willcox Superintendent Dr. Richard Rundhaug.  When absolutely no other official source was talking on the record, he was.  Dr. Rundhaug's information was absolutely vital to our reporting on Thursday.  We, and the public, owe him a debt of gratitude.

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