I’ll never forget my first serious mistake as a rookie reporter. My combination of ignorance and carelessness still drives me to double- and triple-check something that I have written—though, sadly, even that doesn’t protect me from the occasional lapse.
A barman at a local pub had been caught with his fingers in the till (allegedly). The case was adjourned at his first court appearance, when he faced three counts of theft of some small amount—let’s just say a grand total of $2.50―and three charges of falsifying receipts in the same amount.
I didn’t realize this was six charges relating to three offenses; each falsification associated with a theft. So I added the numbers together and came up with a total of $5. Only I typed it carelessly, too, so the short report in our weekly newspaper said that the man―who also happened to be the father of an old schoolmate—had been accused of a $5,000 theft.
I still remember the shiver that ran down my spine when the editor hauled me on the carpet, the kind of cold feeling you get when you slice your finger while chopping stuff in the kitchen. I was ashamed and fearful. The man got a swift follow-up apology, and I got an introduction to some of my editor’s choicer language.
That awful episode came back to me this week when I read, astonished, the report by the Dutch company, ING, which found 45 percent of international journalists surveyed about their use of social media “publish as soon as possible and correct later,” while only one in five insists on doing due diligence before going to press.
Digital media has obviously changed the nature of journalism. With the 24/7 news cycle, there’s not as clear a static, defined story to be told in the same way as back when there were three news points during the day―the morning edition, the evening newspaper, and the television news at supper time. News unfolds constantly.
Telling the story in installments, as it were, is tricky. There are more opportunities to present a distorted narrative, more chances of getting something wrong along the way.
That should, if anything, mean a higher commitment to getting right what you do have, rather than just going with what you’ve got on the basis that you can correct it later. How can we accept inaccuracy on the basis that it’s more important to be first with the update rather than factually correct? That we’ll get it right in the end?
This disturbing trend makes me think of the journalism training to be found in Deuteronomy 13:14. Moses is giving the Israelites their marching instructions as they prepare to cross into the Promised Land. If in the days ahead they hear rumors that some of their fellow Jews have gone astray, turning their backs on God, he says, they are to “inquire, probe, and investigate it thoroughly.”
Why so? Because if the rumors turn out to be true, then they are the ones who will have to carry out the punishment for apostasy and “put to the sword all who live in that town” (verse 15).
The rumors they were dealing with were about life and death. If journalists thought more seriously about how the rumors they deal with can also be about others’ life and death—professionally, figuratively, even literally—I wonder if they would be so cavalier about inaccuracies.
You may be able to apologize for and correct a mistake, but you can’t undo it. The damage is done, and someone has to live with the consequences.
I wonder how many of those 45 percent of journalists would be happy if their doctors applied the same sort of level of diligence to their health care? “Well, it’s probably just a cold, so take a couple of aspirin. If I’m wrong, I can always do surgery later.”
The danger of making mistakes that can affect people’s lives should make us shiver, not shrug.