Planes fly into buildings, a Pennsylvania farmer’s field. Images choke the world’s airwaves as surely as asbestos-laden concrete dust clogs the lungs of survivors racing for their lives. The 24-hour news cycle demands a narrative to caption those pictures now. Vignettes emerge, stories of heroism and horror. A narrative takes shape, but it’s one filled with speculation and inaccuracies.
Perhaps one can forgive raw reports in a breaking story of such magnitude as the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, but what about news stories of a less imperative nature? Would the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement exist if reporters had delayed disseminating that supposed quote from shooting victim Michael Brown of Fergueson, Missouri in March of this year? The report was based on the claim of one witness (who later recanted) with no independent corroboration.
Perhaps a worse sin than misreporting in television journalism is that of misreporting in print. Seymour Hersh (1970 Pulitzer for exposing the My Lai Massacre) certainly should not have published his 10,000 word article on The Killing of Osama bin Laden in the London Review of Books. He extensively quotes two sources, one of whom remains unnamed. That was enough of a flag for his editors at The New Yorker (where he is a staff writer) to refuse to have anything to do with it.
Those of us with a little seasoning remember Janet Cooke being stripped of the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her invented Washington Post expose Jimmy’s World about a 8 year old heroin addict. More recently, The New York Times has been similarly embarrassed by serial plagiarist Jayson Blair in their staff-writing ranks.
In all cases, a basic tenant of journalism has been violated—every fact must be corroborated by two unimpeachable sources before it is reported to the public. The result is, and should be, the public’s mistrust of any sensational story upon first hearing/reading.
Remember, today’s news is tomorrow’s history. When we're its recorders, it’s our job to get the facts straight.
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.