It used to be said that a lie gets halfway round the world before the truth has got its pants on. These days, all too often the lie (or one of its half-cousins; rumor, speculation, innuendo) is back home again, putting its feet up with a drink, before the truth has even woken up.
The early bird may get the worm. The second mouse to the trap may get the cheese. And maybe the third or fourth journalist will get to the truth. For while new technology has done much to advance freedom of speech around the world, it’s also fostered a lot of sloppy journalism.
Time was when we needed at least the other side of the story, if not all sides, before publication. But the media’s traditional role of gate-keeping seems to be giving way to speed-dating. Instead of offering content and context, there’s a string of flirty soundbites trying to catch your attention.
Journalism has undergone change before, of course. The first news sheets were essentially transcripts of town crier announcements, before they learned how the printed medium was best used (hello, inverted pyramid!). When radio arrived, they read newspapers out loud in front of a microphone, before working out how audio could be harnessed. With the advent of television, they “did” radio in front of a camera, before discovering how this new visual medium worked best.
In our changing digital age, they’ve been trying a bit of all three in cyberspace, and we’ve yet to fully learn how to use new technology to its best for good journalism. Though it is now 15 years old, Christopher Harper’s prescient book, And That’s the Way It Will Be: News and information in a digital age, remains an insightful read for anyone thinking about the issue.
There’s clearly huge potential to harness new communication models for good. But one fundamental change has been that “breaking news” is no longer the exception, it’s the norm. Increasingly, news is not the traditional “who, what, why, where, when, and how,” but “here, now, live, work it out yourself.”
NPR’s Morning Edition spotlighted the issue when it examined the erroneous early reporting after the terrible Sandy Hook murders, in December. Journalism is no longer “the first draft of history,” noted correspondent David Folkenflik. It “isn’t even a draft,” he suggested. “It’s just raw notes, waiting for rewrite.”
It’s ironic that hunger for the scoop has never been greater—at a time when its lifetime has never been shorter, thanks to retweeting and online aggregators. But in the rush to beat everyone else, how essential is accuracy and veracity when, in an endless 24-hour news cycle, if you make a mistake you can quickly correct it?
While the news media wrestles with all this, as consumers we need to be more discerning. We need to be aware that Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest’s military maxim, “git thar fustest with the mostest,” isn’t necessarily a solid journalism model. Proverbs 18:17 cautions us that “the person who tells one side of a story seems right, until someone else comes and asks questions” (NCV).
In the introduction to his Gospel, Luke reminds us that many others had written earlier accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. But his Luke-come-lately version is one that endures. Why? Perhaps in part because he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (verse 2). He also wrote “an orderly account” (verse 3) that had a clear purpose: “that you may know…” (verse 4).
That’s worth bearing in mind when this morning’s retweet could be this afternoon’s retraction. Content needs context. Information needs insight. And truth sometimes takes a bit of time.