In debates over the path journalism should take, I am on the losing side. Classicist, old-timer, fuddy-duddy—whether the label is flattering or unflattering, it still describes someone who is unwilling to move with the times by acknowledging that in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, speed trumps nuance and even accuracy.
Publish what we know as soon as we know it is the mantra of the internet triumphalists, who combine the old-time hunger for the scoop with an up-to-the-minute populism. To do otherwise is elitist, goes the argument. It is a return to the I-talk-you-listen model that elevates the journalist above his audience, whose members, with their own tape recorders, cameras and computers are as capable as any reporter of telling us what is going on.
So what if the story is incomplete or flat-out wrong? That’s OK. The crowd will correct it. Once readers/viewers/auditors get hold of it, they will reshape it until it is both right and multi dimensional.
It turns out that this debate even has a name: “Product vs. process journalism.” It comes complete with impressively incomprehensible charts.
Academics have a way of buffing simple ideas with intellectual polish until they radiate the shine of profundity.
In practice, though, the process of finding the story, sifting fact from falsehood, deciding what matters and what doesn’t and presenting the result in compelling fashion is not edifying. You may crave steak for dinner, but you shouldn’t have to watch a steer being slaughtered, gutted, and cut into pieces to throw one on the grill.
And too often, this journalism that proposes that it is at the cutting edge is a throwback to 19th-century newspaper wars whose weapons were the half-baked scoop and the hoax.
On April 23, The Times published a cutesie feature on its City Room blog. It told the story of Jeff Ragsdale, who stood in Madison Square Park holding a sign that read “I was verbally abusive. I’m sorry, Megan.” If you go to that post now, you will be confronted by this editor’s note:
There is considerable evidence that this is a hoax. Jeff Ragsdale has worked as a comedian and actor, and his work sometimes involves blurring lines between reality and performance. . . .
Obviously, we are skeptical at this point. We will dig further. Just as obviously, we wish we had done the digging before we published the post.
How quaintly old-fashioned of The Times to express regret, and to have published a 1,120-word followup a week after the first story appeared, confessing that it still doesn’t know the full story.
If this trivial story were just an aberrant slip by our finest newspaper, it would be amusing (although a lot less amusing than the New York Sun’s sensational discovery of life on the moon in 1835 or Mark Twain’s “Petrified Man.”) But news stories that are are false or misleading because they were cursorily reported and edited are not unusual, nor are they always unimportant. Try following the reports of the shootings at Fort Hood in November, 2009, when the internet and cable news stations, faced with a couple of drops of information and buckets of time to fill filled them with rumor and unreliable reports of conspiracy.
Journalism is the first draft of history, the cliché goes. The label is not entirely flattering. It implies error and shallowness, to be corrected and deepened as the passing years give the historian both more information and more time for reflection. But at least it suggests that reporting will be sufficiently considered and sufficiently accurate to provide a starting point. Too often, these days, we get instead the awkward fumblings and false starts that used to go into the trash before a first draft could be produced.