The first thing I learned in J School was that being first to break a story was what every journalist strived for. The second thing was that being first and wrong was just being wrong. This was a challenge back in the 1990s when the internet was in its infancy; in a world of 24-hour rolling news and real-time internet it must be an almost impossible job. Nevertheless, these qualities must be upheld otherwise it’s not journalism – it’s just rumour spreading.
Back in the 90s my News Editors wouldn’t have let me anywhere near a studio, let alone a live microphone, unless I could prove the accuracy of the information from two independent, and reliable, sources. One had to be a news agency and, in many cases, the other had to be the police or other authority. She’d rather be second than be wrong. Getting it wrong not only brings in to question the future credibility of the news outlet, but is also fraught with legal difficulties.
There have been examples of news networks getting things wrong before: the wrong winners have been declared in US Presidential elections based on incorrect exit poll data, death tolls are often printed wrong and minor details of evolving stories are mis-reported but, if as appears to be the case today, the perpetrator of a crime in Newtown, CT. is wrongly identified then it’s time the industry took a long hard look at itself and remembers the second rule of journalism. If you’re first but wrong, you’re just wrong.