By Tim Hayes

To apply logic or reason to such an unspeakable, unimaginable, unconscionable act of monstrosity as the events of Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School is a waste of time and brain cells.  But would it be too much to ask for some accurate reporting, so that at least the facts are presented properly?

Apparently, it would.  These are the times when I think twice about telling people that I majored in journalism.  The shoddy, sloppy, emotion-heaving display of alleged reporting coming out of Connecticut over the past 48 hours has been absolutely sickening.

A friend who teaches journalism at the college level summarized the problem brilliantly on Facebook as follows:

As a former journalist, I shudder with the incompetence I see when reporters have to cover a major story such as the senseless school shooting yesterday. Part of the incompetence comes from competitive pressures. The reporters want to be the first to break a component of the story. Part of the incompetence is newsrooms are understaffed because of cutbacks related to the economy. Part of it is that newsrooms have cut their most experienced reporters to save money. And part of it is that reporters rely way too much on anonymous sources. As a result, you get stories that are essentially rumors. They are rarely accurate.

“I wake up today to find out that reporters used the wrong name yesterday for the shooter. It was actually Adam Lanza–and not his brother Ryan–who committed the murders. Second, stories said the shooter suffered from autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, or a personality disorder. Okay. But which one? And what does that mean? Maybe you could talk to pediatricians and psychologists and find out if any of those conditions are related to violence before rushing onto the air? Maybe you could do a simple Google search? These families are suffering enough without incompetent journalists making things much worse with their inaccurate and hastily done reports.”

People will make mistakes, especially when a story arrives that is so huge, with confusion and disarray ruling the day until the details can be discovered, validated, organized, and then – and only then – reported.  At least that’s how I was taught, anyway.  Now, it’s rush, rush, rush.  Any new tidbit of information, let’s get it on the air immediately.  We have to be able to produce that promo later that says we were the first to report this “breaking news.”

There was a day when journalists took personal and professional pride in getting the story straight first, and not just being the first to report something.  There also was a day when journalists took responsibility when factual errors made it to the public.  One of the most famous examples occurred on March 30, 1981, during live news coverage of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.  White House Press Secretary James Brady, a close friend of ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds, was erroneously reported by all three networks as having died from the head wound he suffered in the incident. Upon learning that the information regarding Brady was incorrect, Reynolds became noticeably upset and, looking around at staffers in the background, angrily burst out, while still live on the air:  “Let’s get it nailed down…somebody…let’s find out! Let’s get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!”

Where are the Frank Reynolds of the journalistic cadre today?  Who’s owning up to dropping the ball?  To rushing unconfirmed, ill-informed, incomplete information online or over the airwaves?  

Honestly, do you know which network was the first to report the tragedy in Connecticut?  Do you care?  Does the race to be first mean anything at all to you?  It sure doesn’t to me.

A 2012 survey conducted by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri showed that while 62% of active consumers of news prefer to receive their news from “professional journalists,” only 37% of those same consumers place their trust in the mainstream media.  Those results don’t really surprise me.  Those results say to me that the journalists we have are the best game in town, but that bar is set pretty damn low.

Say, fellow former journalism majors across the fruited plain, here’s a thought.  How about instead of breaking your necks to beat the clock, with a careless disregard for the facts and a blatant disrespect for your audience, we instead shift the basis of competition to being the first to report the news accurately, with proper attribution and validation?

Integrity is non-negotiable.  It should never have become an option.  I refuse to believe that’s truly too much to ask.

Copyright 2012 Tim Hayes Consulting