Saturday, June 30, 2012
HEADLINES & JOURNALISM 101
Dewey Defeats Truman, Internet Domain
Mandate Struck Down, Internet Domain Photoshopped
I recently watched the premier of the new HBO series Newsroom. The focus in the fast paced show revolved around the first breaking hours of the now legendary Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and the resulting oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. One young producer had the gut sense that this had the potential for the breaking news story that eventually evolved, but those initial hours and days were short on facts. As they scrambled to use all their networking resources to verify the implications of the impending headline grabbing story, the evening news segment had started. Their sources would have been valid in real life, but implausible. However, once they had verified the integrity of their information, they scooped the competition as the situation unfolded while they were reporting it which made for good television in a one hour time slot, albeit the real life story took a few days to sort out.
Just a few days later, I found it fascinating to watch a live real world cable news network grab the voluminous document relating the US Supreme Court decision on the individual mandate of Obamacare. Perhaps it was their bias and/or their attempt to scoop the competition, but they immediately began reporting that the program had been struck down. CNN ran a “fake breaking” banner headline proclaiming “Mandate Struck Down”!. Then the on-air anchor apparently received a news feed from another web site claiming the program had actually been upheld based on the Congressional authority to tax versus involve themselves in commerce. I just read a "Monday morning quarterback" article in USA Today that faulted FOX, CNN, NPR and other news agencies as violating one of the basic tenants of journalism—that speed is the enemy of accuracy.
I’ve always liked the image of a good ol’ Missouri boy, Harry Truman, holding up a copy of The Chicago Tribune showing the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”! It probably didn’t help that the newspaper had earlier referred to Truman as a nincompoop! What I remember from a college statistics class was that the headline was partly derived from a quick telephone poll of households. The serious flaw, however, was that it was a sampling of a biased demographic that could afford the new communications technology at the time and they were mainly Republicans. Once again we have validated Human Behavior 101 revealing that those who don’t study history and learn from it are doomed to repeat it. And we should always take a deep breath and determine the risk/reward balance of any real world situation before making a gun-jump decision where the risk of long term embarrassment far outweighs a very short term reward.