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Media should focus on getting it right, not getting it first

By Gene Policinski

Guest columnist

“Getting it right” is one reliable defense for a free press in today’s media world against critics who often base objections and critiques more on political differences than factual error.

However, criticism for getting it wrong is fair game for press skeptics — with “wrong” covering a multitude of alleged sins, as occurred following the Jan. 26 deaths of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash.

Even though many times the news outlets themselves quickly corrected errors or apologized, those moves often fell short of placating many on social media.

The BBC apologized quickly Sunday for using video of NBA star LeBron James during a segment on Bryant’s death — a mistake the harkened to an old racist saw that to whites, all black
people “look alike.”

The BBC’s quick apology: “In tonight’s coverage of the death of Kobe Bryant on #BBCNewsTen, we mistakenly used pictures of LeBron James in one section of the report,” BBC Editor Paul Royall tweeted hours later. “We apologize for this human error, which fell below our usual standards.”

A slew of online critics — some starting an online petition calling for resignation — have questioned the sincerity of an MSNBC anchor’s apology Sunday after she appeared to use the n-word when reporting on Bryant’s death. Alison Morris later posted on Twitter: “Earlier today, while reporting on the tragic news of Kobe Bryant’s passing, I unfortunately stuttered on air, combining the names of the Knicks and the Lakers to say ‘Nakers.’” Please know I did not & would NEVER use a racist term. I apologize for the confusion this caused.”

Gossip site TMZ was the first to report Bryant’s death. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva later said, “It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one … perished and you learn about it from TMZ.” Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami ‏tweeted that he understood the pressures related to “…getting the scoop, but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media.”

Less clear is why The Washington Post placed a national political reporter, Felicia Sonmez, on administrative leave Monday — only to reverse the action Tuesday — because of tweets that began with a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story titled, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story and the Half-Confession.”

It is unclear whether the Post’s initial action was in response to many online critics who called the tweet “insensitive” — some issuing death threats, Sonmez said — or because one of her tweets on the subject included a screen shot of her work email inbox, showing the names of critics.

By Tuesday, newsroom colleagues were rallying around Sonmez and Post columnist Erik Wemple wrote that the newspaper’s concerns, per an email from management to Sonmez, were that “‘they didn’t
‘pertain’ to the reporter’s ‘coverage area’” and that “your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.’” In the same column, Sonmez was quoted as saying she was never told the suspension involved the screen grab of her work email box.

Wemple raised questions about the action, noting that “if journalists at the Post are prone to suspension for tweeting stories off their beats, the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave.”

On Tuesday evening, “After conducting an internal review, we have determined that, while we consider Felicia’s tweets ill-timed, she was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy,” Tracy Grant, managing editor of the Post, said in a statement.

Several news outlets drew a line from an early Fox News report with the incorrect number of those who died to a President Trump tweet repeating the error. ABC News on Wednesday suspended correspondent Matt Gutman after he erroneously reported on Sunday that all four of Bryant’s daughters were on the helicopter that crashed. Gutman, who also reported strong criticism on social media, apologized: “We are in the business of holding people accountable, and I hold myself accountable for a terrible mistake, which I deeply regret.”

A common factor here is the desire for a speedy post, reaction or comment, seemingly based on an assumption that readers and viewers and listeners care most about hearing news and seeing reactions “now.” But what about the values of accuracy, deliberation and thoroughness in an era in which much of the nation considers the news media unreliable, if not deliberately manipulative and unduly provocative?

Yes, many major news operations got it right — by waiting for information to be verified. The Los Angeles Times at least took the intermediate approach of acknowledging online the early accounts of Bryant’s death and advising its readers it still was investigating those reports.

Sonmez’s incident is a more challenging call — for the Post, for the public and for a free press generally. Certainly, there is the longstanding social pressure and even journalistic guidelines to avoid sensationalism and inflicting undue pain — that seems to lean toward avoiding disparaging news of a person immediately after his/her death.

But then, to ignore a woman’s allegation and resulting legal action in the #MeToo era (or anytime) likely would have resulted in legitimate complaints that journalists were channeling gender bias and hero worship and sanitizing a life. For the record, criminal charges against Bryan were dropped and a civil lawsuit settled out of court.

There is not one perfect way to gather or report news. The tasks are too complex and dependent on facts of each instance to produce cookie-cutter rules. And to a large degree, the First Amendment rules out the enforceable codes of conduct that govern professions such as law and medicine.

But having been a young reporter at one time whose on-deadline job all too often was to collect a photo and interview family members of a recently deceased newsworthy person, I know there is a better way, with sensitivity, honesty and an emphasis on getting things right the first time, even when giving audiences an accurate news account.

Those terms — sensitivity, honesty, getting it right and accurate — are not in the First Amendment’s 45 words, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean those values aren’t as real or applicable to how a free press should operate.

 

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@freedomforum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.