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Russell Frank: Journalism’s New Mantra is Get It Now, Fix It Later

by on July 06, 2012 6:13 AM

Sooner or later, online news is going to supplant newsprint altogether because of one vast difference between the two media: Online news can be updated around the clock. Newsprint cannot be updated more than once every 24 hours except on those extremely rare occasions when the news is so huge – think 9/11 – that they print an extra edition.

Print partisans will tout the value of all the analysis and context newspapers can offer by not publishing oftener than once a day. They’re essentially saying that newspapers make pretty good magazines. But when it comes to their historic core mission of bringing us timely information from around the globe, they’re little better than carrier pigeons – or pigeon coop liners.

The one-a-day news cycle has only one clear-cut advantage over the round-the-clock news cycle: Print people have more time than electronic people to make sure they’re not disseminating bad information.

Take the Supreme Court’s decision this week on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. CNN and Fox News were in such a hurry to tell us what the justices decided that they started babbling about it before they had read through the entire opinion. Thus their preliminary distillations were that the Supremes had found the healthcare law to be unconstitutional. Which was exactly wrong.

No sooner did I bring this up in my news writing class the other day than one of my students read this headline at aol.com: “Michael Jordan Arrested.” When he clicked on it, he learned that Michel Jordan’s son was the one who got arrested. Oops.

This kind of thing is happening more and more. Think back to last January when Onward State jumped the gun in reporting the death of Joe Paterno. Or to reports that 12 of the coal miners trapped underground in the 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia had survived. Or to reports of total mayhem in the Louisiana Superdome when it was used as an evacuation center during Hurricane Katrina.

Journalists have always placed a priority on breaking news before the competition, but we had this saying: Get it first, but first, get it right.

Certainly print journalism has had its historic howlers. “Dewey Defeats Truman” is the most famous one. More recently, the New York Post reported that John Kerry had picked Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt as his running mate in 2004. That’s Gephardt spelled E-D-W-A-R-D-S.

Just this week there was USA Today’s whipsaw coverage of Fourth of July spending. On Monday, The Nation’s Newspaper published a front-page story headlined “Fourth of July spending fizzles - Folks to spend midweek holiday barbecuing with family, friends.” On Tuesday, the paper ran a front-page story headlined “More to hit the road this Fourth - Midweek holiday not hurting plans.”

The fizzle story quoted Visa and National Retail Federation surveys and a woman in Phoenix who planned to spend the holiday barbecuing with family and friends, from which, perhaps, we were to infer that most Americans were going to spend the holiday close to home.

The hit-the-road story quoted AAA and Travelocity spokespeople, a couple of hotel owners and a woman in Atlanta who was planning to drive to New Orleans, from which, perhaps, we were to infer that most Americans were willing to make six-hour drives on the holiday.

But as lame as print journalism can be, television and online news are worse, thanks, paradoxically, to their ability to constantly update. The thinking goes like this: The public demands to know what’s happening as it’s happening. Therefore, we, the information providers, must tell them what we’re finding out as we’re finding it out. If what we’re finding out turns out to be mistaken or misleading, well, we can always instantly correct it.

In other words, get it first, then fix it if it’s wrong.

Notice how this line of reasoning shifts the blame for errors from the news providers to the news consumers. The problem isn’t that news organizations are hoping and praying that by being “the grand champions of news firstiness,” as Jon Stewart put it, they will draw more viewers and then, more advertisers. It’s that high-minded journalists want to verify before reporting, but their impatient audience won’t let them. Uh-huh.

The erroneous Michael Jordan headline was only up for a few moments. Jon Stewart noted that it took CNN seven minutes to stop reporting that Obamacare had been struck down. That may not seem like much time, but it was enough to give Stewart five minutes’ worth of material. I laughed right along with the audience, but it’s not so funny that journalism is becoming a laughing stock.

When news organizations cease to be perceived as reliable information providers, they cease to have any meaningful function at all – aside, that is, from providing fodder for the likes of Jon Stewart.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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