Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

When journalism goes wrong

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Public Relations: When journalism goes wrongJournalism

Woodward and Bernstein brought down President Nixon. Actors Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman lionized them in “All the President’s Men” and a thousand reporting careers were launched.

Thirty years later, journalists, in many eyes, have descended from democracy-saving heroes to untrustworthy jackals. From a lying NY Times reporter to CBS’s misreporting of the President’s National Guard service to Newsweek’s retraction of its story that Guantanamo Bay interrogators flushed a copy of the Qur’an down a toilet (triggering riots in Muslim countries and 15 deaths). Can the media sink any lower?

And it’s not just an American phenomena. Sloppy reporting in China recently roiled global financial markets causing perhaps $2 billion to be traded in a frantic few minutes, for no reason at all. According to the Wall Street Journal, a weekend reporter for the China News Service wrote a speculative piece about what would happen if the Chinese currency should appreciate. She collected existing information from various local newspapers, but she attributed her story to “observers.” The People’s Daily English translation of her report appeared to convert her speculations into fact. The “news” circulated worldwide, disrupted financial markets, and the U.S. dollar plummeted, until someone spotted the error.

What’s wrong here? Why can’t even the biggest news operations get it right, and is this something new?

I believe it is part nature of the beast, part attitude, and part loss of perspective. If I could distill it into a single thought it would be that reporters become desensitized to the power they wield and the havoc they can cause, especially when they err.

When I was a journalist, some of us, including me, had a kind of hubris, a holier-than-thou “I am on a mission to save the world” mind-set. We believed our right to information trumped all. We sometimes churned out stories at a speed and frequency that left little time to cross-check information or to weigh the implications of our wording and the context of our facts. Under deadline pressure we wrote like furies trying to beat competitors to the big story. Taxed editors often glanced at our output and, absent glaring error or poor grammar, usually signed off on it. Occasionally lost in our rush was sufficient reflection on the substantial impact we were having on the subjects of our stories. Such an environment inures you to the force of your reporting. You can become callous. I think it is unintended and mostly unconscious. I remember business people sometimes challenging our reporting. We would defend ourselves and internally write off critics as picky. “We got most of it right, didn’t we?”

I didn’t fully comprehend our impact until I left journalism and worked with companies dealing with my former colleagues. I noticed that a reporter’s mere call for information triggered a cascade of reactions as officials considered how to respond. Even without a controversy, the innocent news inquiry was sufficient to monopolize the day as managers wondered “What does he want?” “What will he ask?” “Have we done anything wrong?” “Should we say anything?” This seeming overreaction fascinated me because, as a reporter I routinely contacted companies just trolling for a story. I little appreciated the impact my query was having on the other end or the reaction that would follow my eventual report.

In my opinion, the constellation of an attitude of superiority, competitive fire, deadline pressure, cursory editing, and, in the end, failure to foresee the implications of a story underlies the news failures we have been witnessing. This helps explain to a degree how a seemingly inconsequential, inadequately sourced short article defaming the Qur’an could get into Newsweek.

I see no system-wide fix. Journalists themselves need to resolve this. They should look in a mirror and reflect on their very real influence. Police are taught that once you fire your pistol there is no taking back the bullet. Reporters must remember their words can have the power of a bullet and consider the consequences when they fire their journalistic guns.

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