Media performances in Boston have ranged from heroic to inexcusable

By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN
Posted April 19, 2013, at 7:21 p.m.

On a cold January morning back in 1999, shortly after my newspaper was tossed upon my porch, my phone rang.

It was Donna Gormley who was working as an anchor and news director at WLBZ CH. 2. She was a good friend, a neighbor and a fierce competitor, and she had just got her first look at the front page of the Bangor Daily News.

I smiled when I heard her voice.

“I hate you,” she shouted at me. “I knew it. I knew you’d do it, but I hate you.”

What I did was get a scoop — a well-sourced, triple-checked and 100 percent accurate scoop.

Geraldine Malmstrom had been secretly indicted the day before for the murder of her husband Dr. John Malmstrom.

It was an intriguing murder case and reporters were clamoring for information.

Make no mistake about it. When you are in the competitive business of breaking news, being first feels really, really good.

If any reporter, producer, editor or photographer tells you differently, they are lying.

Being first suggests you worked harder than your competition. It suggests you have better and more reliable sources.

Being first is a major component of the business.

It always has been, but in the instant communication world we live in today where any blogger or anyone with a social media account can spread news and “facts” to thousands of people instantly, “being first” and actually being recognized as being first is more difficult than ever.

Unfortunately, this week as members of the media have pushed and shoved and dug their way through the Boston Marathon bombing story, some reporters have lost sight of the fundamentals of the profession — truth and accuracy.

Accuracy before speed. It’s a journalism 101 lesson.

It’s great to be first. It is shameful to be first and wrong.

There was a day when any media organization was judged first and foremost on its accuracy and reliability. For its ability to publish or air well-sourced stories.

On a national level, you can get sources everywhere, especially if you work for a national media outlet.

As a local or state reporter you know your sources well. You know their credibility. You know their alliances, their political leanings. You take that into account depending on the story you are working on.

For example if you are doing a story on a rumor that Gov. Paul LePage has said or done something ridiculous, as a reporter, you question if your sources are all liberal-leaning folk. You would want some confirmation from some solid conservative sources before going with the story.

Much like a mathematician you work it out to a high probability of accuracy.

Because, again, to be first and wrong is inexcusable. It marks you, not only among your readers, but among your colleagues and your sources.

Rushing to make a deadline?

No excuse.

The media has made mistakes this week and during other recent national tragedies that are inexcusable.

For example, John King, seemingly a seasoned reporter for CNN working on the breaking story in Boston, went live on Wednesday saying that his sources assured him that a suspect in the Marathon bombing had been identified and arrested. It was a report that anchor Wolf Blitzer kept reminding us was exclusive to CNN.

It sure was because it was wrong and when confronted with that on the air, King blamed his normally reliable sources.

Trust me, King was just as responsible for the error as his sources.

Thursday’s front page of the New York Post featured a photograph of two men wearing backpacks. The headline read: ‘Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.’ Two men were indeed being sought, but not the two in the Post photo.

Inexcusable.

It is your job to remember such errors and hold the journalists accountable. To send them emails. To not watch those stations or read those papers.

But it is also important to assess the coverage in Boston during the past 36 hours and see the invaluable effort that so many “feet on the ground” reporters are doing to bring you the latest and most accurate news.

There have been media heroes.

Adam Williams, a reporter for Boston’s WHDH TV, got caught in the middle of a shootout while on the phone with his station. He was ducking, as he described it, “the most wild scene I’ve ever been in.”

He was reporting from a residential Boston area, clearly nervous, but still on the phone accurately reporting what he was seeing and hearing.

Williams was one of those doing the work — being present, checking and rechecking their sources, filing accurate and reliable information — ducking danger when necessary and staying anyway.

What is happening in Boston is unprecedented. It is a test for us all. Some journalists have failed the test, but don’t forget to remember the ones who haven’t.

Those are the reporters, producers, photographers and editors who stay up all night, double check their sources and make sure that we all have our stories straight.

They are out there. Trust me.

Sometimes they are first, always they are accurate.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/04/19/living/blogs-and-columns-living/media-performances-in-boston-have-ranged-from-heroic-to-inexcusable/ printed on September 16, 2014