Chasing two rabbits: Media can’t be both “first” and “comprehensive”
“If you try and chase two rabbits, you end up losing both.” —Gil Grissom, CSI
Don’t you miss the days when news outlets reported facts, and nothing but the facts? Do you remember when important events came to us in brief “breaking news” segments that lasted only as long as it took for the presenter to tell us the facts known at the time? Then “Details at 11:00” followed.
Alas, ’tis no longer so, as we saw this week. First, a gunman opened fire in the Navy Yards in Washington, DC. Horrible. At the outset, that’s all anyone knew, but that didn’t stop the media speculation. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show skewered CNN’s coverage of the event, saying: “CNN doesn’t let a lack of facts get in the way of drawing speculative conclusions.”
Then, on Wednesday in my home city of Ottawa, Canada, a double-decker bus collided with a train. The news ricocheted through our city—most people know someone who lives in that part of town. We lived with the frightening notion that someone we love could have been involved.
TV reporters on the scene scrambled to say something, anything, to fill non-stop airtime. Other media dug for news for their social media feeds. It hurt, watching it. The whole thing had an air of desperation. Reporters desperate to talk to emotionally fragile victims. Reporters desperate to fill air time. Reporters desperate to be first with anything close to a fact.
What I needed was the measured tones of a newscaster who respected the tragedy and the people and who gave me only the facts. What I got was desperate floundering.
Somewhere in the evolution of journalism the path veered toward first scoops and wall-to-wall coverage. Both deny the necessary role that time plays in quality news coverage. When, in an effort to be first, a reporter goes to air with wrong information, it’s a disservice to the industry and to the people hurt by the wrong information. When media outlets spend all their time spewing speculation, it robs them of the time they could spend constructing a quality story. In the end, they only hurt themselves. The result is that we don’t trust them.
The afternoon of the bus crash I had a scheduled appointment to donate blood. The TV in the Canadian Blood Services donation room carried the crash coverage. The nurses shook their heads, not at the tragedy, but at the reporters. “We’ll have to wait to find out what really happened,” they said.
Exactly. The facts couldn’t be known at the time, so why were they on the air?
I thought of the wisdom of Gil Grissom (or rather, the CSI scriptwriter who borrowed it from an ancient Chinese/Russian proverb). When we chase two rabbits, both get away. The media needs to decide which rabbit they want to chase.
If you live in America, you can watch The Daily Show piece here: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-september-17-2013/wrongnado—cnn?xrs=synd_twitter_091913_tds_36
As The Daily Show team says, “If you can’t give up free health care and move to America”, you can watch it here: http://www.thecomedynetwork.ca/blogs/2013/09/daily-show-sept17