Facts are More Important Than Being First

By Mark Nichol

Thanks to technology, everyone who wants to be a writer and publisher can easily do so online. Unfortunately, this ease has resulted in a lot of unease about how information is disseminated.

Early online information about the recent massacre of children and adults at a Connecticut school is a case in point. Initial reports identified the killer as a man named Ryan Lanza, though, as it turns out, Lanza’s younger brother, the real perpetrator of this horror, who killed himself, had apparently used his brother’s identification during the incident.

But by the time this ruse was detected, the innocent brother had been harassed and threatened online by people who read or heard the inaccurate information, and he issued distraught denials on his Facebook page. Imagine the tragedy that would have occurred if some self-righteous vigilante, missing or ignoring his declaration of innocence, had stormed the elder Lanza’s home or office and killed him.

In addition, reports varied about the number and type of guns the perpetrator used, prompting online debates about gun control based on the firepower and capacity of the weapons apparently used. Such careless argument before the facts are straight just confuses what is already an emotionally charged social issue.

News media, including television and radio news programs and newspapers and magazines, sometimes make such mistakes, and when the information is significant, such sources retract it as soon as possible. Sometimes, it’s too late, and the damage is done. But usually, because of generally stringent standards for gathering facts for reporting, the erroneous information is never released in the first place.

But now that virtually anyone, anywhere can post or otherwise disseminate mistaken “facts,” the risk of tragic consequences is multiplied. Even fairly innocuous information can be damaging, so take care when passing along a piece of news:

1. Before blogging or tweeting information, verify though reputable news sources — or, better yet, directly from those involved — that it is correct. (Two other ways of putting it: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and, more lightheartedly, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.)
2. Being correct is more important than being first.
3. Clearly distinguish fact from opinion in your own commentary, and be alert for your own biases.
4. If you do introduce or repeat misinformation, correct it as soon and as prominently as possible.
5. Most important, if you fail to heed any of these tips, learn from your failures so that next time, there is no next time.

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11 Responses to “Facts are More Important Than Being First”

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Good advice, but it’s not just bloggers and tweeters who get it wrong. The media, in their rush for ratings, is just as guilty of releasing bad information, as in this case. The brother probably has an excellent case for libel, and I image there will be some quiet settlements for big bucks.

    Just like with the Richard Jewel case and the Alabama man who was wrongly accused of bombing a federal judge.

  • Dallee

    Thanks for bring up this important caution.

    Journalists used to be required to confirm their statements with two independent sources, which made “news” much more accurate.

    Now, with the desire to be first on the internet or tweetdom, one (and sometimes a “faux” source at that) seems to be the most writers require.

    Real writers, real journalists can do better — go for two reputable, independent sources. You will be more credible.

  • mlswift

    Thanks for putting this out there. The first thing in journalism one learns is to check your facts. Blogging, tweeting, facebooking is layman journalism…without the who, what, when, where, why, and how researched, because people always take something and RUN WITH IT. They never check the facts.

    I got a notification of a tweet yesterday. Adam Sandler died…again. I’m sure it’s true. It has to be…I read it online.

  • Annette

    Excellent post! I was just thinking about this very thing and how maddening it is that some news outlets are so determined to be first that they don’t even care about making sure they really have the facts. For the first couple of days after that tragic event, I was under the impression that Lanza’s mother was the teacher in that classroom and that he had gone in there, shot her first and then shot all her students to get more “revenge” on her. Then all of a sudden they were reporting that he had killed her at home before the rampage and I never heard anyone from the media apologize and say that they had initially reported it wrong. It makes me mad that they just kind of changed their story without admitting tot he mistake. It’s very confusing.

  • ApK

    This is darned good advice here. That people calling themselves journalists need to be reminded of such things (and far too many do) is depressing. The right of a free press is crucial to a free society, and when that press become an active DISservice to society, it can cause a shift to a really bad place.

  • R. E. Hunter

    I didn’t follow it much online, but all the incorrect news I received was straight from CNN. They always qualify it as “unconfirmed reports”, but no one listens to that part.

  • :Donna

    Mark, this was EXcellent! I retweeted it!

  • thebluebird11

    This has been my contention all along. People hear stuff and then jump to conclusions, spout off their opinions, based on…what, exactly? And people will ask me what I think of something, and I’ll just tell them plain out, let me know when we have all the facts and I’ll review and discuss it and come to a conclusion. When it comes to things of national/international scale, since there is so much that is covered up because of security issues, we will pretty much NEVER have the facts. Things might come to light (or not) in 50 or 100 years, when all the people invovled are long gone. By then, who will care, and what will it matter. In the meantime, I do encourage people to wait before they pass judgment on things, or they have to start backpedaling and look like fools. For more on this, check out the subsequent info on the Portland Mall shooting, since it was revealed that apparently there was an armed civilian present (concealed/carry).

  • Lew

    I agree with everything in your article – a lot – except your defense of professional media. Every erroneous piece of information you listed came to me from media. I had to sit through an hour’s seminar one year in which the Seattle Times explained “the need for speed” to get the story out before competitors. It’s disgraceful. No, make that dispicable.

  • Val B

    I’m not sure this is possible when the “reputable” sources in the media (NYT, Reuters, AP, DJ, NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, CNN) all jump the gun for ratings. Most would be forced to be silent…would probably be a good thing.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Great article, Mark. Bravo for reminding us to check our sources thoroughly. It reminds me of another case earlier this year wherein Person A committed a crime and the media found a DIFFERENT Person A on Facebook and stated it was the SAME Person A (although both people lived in close proximity they were different people). When the error was made known the media basically said “Ooops. Now let us sell you something.” And nothing was ever done to remedy the error. Sheesh. Journalism is dead and rotting in its coffin.

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