July 9, 2015

News Reporting 101: Taking an F for Accuracy


newspaper journalism

All that stood between me and failure were three flights of stairs, one abnormally long hallway and 30 seconds.

My first long-form News Reporting 101 article assignment was rolled up in my hand like a relay race baton.

I had spent a week glued to my desktop computer and phone, researching facts and calling sources for what I hoped would be intriguing, A+ worthy quotes. Despite having the utmost confidence in my final product, the rules of reporting told me that failure was inevitable.

But that didn’t stop me from taking those steps two at a time.

You see, the instructor had made the rules clear: both in journalism and in News Reporting 101. Any inaccuracies in your writing (misspelled names, incorrect information) and you fail. Turn in an assignment late (even by half a second) and you fail. There were no discussions, no negotiations, and no journalistic re-dos. I ran down the hallway—and I’m not a runner—annoyed that I had chosen such a hard and fast college major.

It’s not that I didn’t understand the rules—what’s the point of news if it’s wrong and late?

But I debated then, and still do now, whether these two ideals—timeliness and accuracy—could co-exist harmoniously in the world of reporting. Collecting facts and crafting an informative, articulate piece of news takes time. But when your goal is to be the first to break a story, time is your enemy.

And this was 13 years ago—before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the 24-hour news cycle flipped journalism upside down and made anyone with an iPhone and working fingers a pseudo-reporter. Now “news” just flies out of everyone’s mouth, is posted on everyone’s feed and is overly timely, but rarely without error.

Just a few days ago, I woke up to another Breaking News! headline on my Facebook feed: “Shooting Reported at Navy Yard; Area on Lockdown.” I live approximately 30 miles from Washington D.C. and was headed in that direction for work, so of course my anxiety level spiked from barely awake to officially freaked out! Was this a terror attack? How many people were injured? Was this going to affect my commute? I clicked on at least five of the related articles. All had been posted within the past 30 minutes—they were timely all right. But none of them answered my questions. And all of them said the same exact thing—a whole lot of nothing camouflaged by “allegedly,” and “sources say,” and “check back for updates.”

Back in college I relied on nightly broadcast news and The Washington Post for my information fix. When I wanted to know what was going on in the world, I knew exactly where to go. And I believed I could trust reporters, and journalism as a whole, to provide me with quick and concrete facts. But the face of journalism, and my view of it, has changed in recent years.

Today, it’s not enough to be first. News is an all-day, everyday business that never takes a timeout or a holiday. And since the goal is to constantly be reporting on-screen, online and on demand, it starts to feel like much of what is being reported is speculative at best, and down-right wrong at worst.

I’m all for the dissemination of information to the public—it’s why I majored in journalism and work daily to make a living as a writer. I just wonder what kind of damage is being done by demanding that every bit of information we want is available to us exactly when we want it.

Are we really concerned with learning the truth?

Or is our need for immediate gratification killing our need to get it right? Turns out that after three hours of minute-by-minute coverage, live broadcasts and me anxiously checking my phone for updates, the “shooting” at the Navy Yard was labeled a false alarm.

After all that running and frantic stair-climbing, I finally turned my first assignment in for News Reporting 101. Later that week, I was thrilled when my professor read my article aloud to the class citing its impressive research, creative voice and lack of errors.

He also stated that I absolutely would have earned a perfect score—had I not ran in thirty seconds late to hand the assignment in.

So I failed.

But I’ll take an “F” for accuracy any day.



Relephant Read:

We are What Our Minds Consume. Choose Wisely, Dig Deep.


Author: Nicole Cameron

Editor: Renee Jahnke

Image:  Mustafa Khayat-Flickr  

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