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It’s better to be second, and right, than to be first, and wrong

Basic principles of good journalism will withstand the test of any microscope, but in a world awash with millions of devices for recording just about anything, the urge to be first in covering major incidents carries a risk of being first with the story, but also first in getting it wrong.

This puts extra pressure on journalists who are competing with the Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, texting world, where information criss-crosses without any consideration as to whether is accurate or not. In other words, the electronic gossip syndrome has expanded faster than any type of flu virus. News organisations around the world are not unaware that getting a story first may boost ratings, but if that first report turns out to be false, their credibility for operating as professionals will take a steep nose dive.

Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with getting a good story first. Just about every journalist enjoys that rush of adrenalin when you are sitting on an exclusive story that will not only be an attention getter, but is accurate. That requires very careful probing, with professional principles at the forefront. Even with that, an error can still occur.

The veteran journalist, Dan Rather, former anchor at CBS News, recently stressed that one has to be careful about first reports these days, because of the rush by so many to get information out first.

The likelihood of getting it wrong increases, because checking and rechecking takes time. For instance in the recent Boston bombing tragedy when utter confusion was at its height, there were early reports of arrest that turned out to be erroneous.

Too often a rumour finds its way to major news sources before being checked out for accuracy. These things happen, but in the world of professional journalism more is expected from those charged with getting it right, before rolling the press or getting before the microphone.

The free press has the awesome responsibility of wading through jungles of extremely complex issues to keep people informed of what is really happening. Remember there are always those even in high positions, who are not too receptive to the prying eyes of the press.

Usually that is because there is something they would rather not have exposed.

Even false impressions can be dangerous. A case in point was the kidnapping incident in America, where Ariel Castro held three women captive for a decade before he was eventually arrested after one managed to escape. When police caught up with him he was with two of his brothers who were also arrested. When their faces appeared on television, most viewers branded all three as the worst type of criminals. It was difficult for anyone to imagine that the brothers were not involved.

The police have since released the two brothers after extensive investigation revealed they had nothing to do with the crime. Of course there are still those who have doubts about the police findings. The bottom line is that the first impression will not be easy to overcome. Both men have vehemently denied involvement, and have been bitterly critical of their brother who they denounced as a monster. In this case, the press gave them full coverage in attempts to keep the story professionally balanced.

Meanwhile controversy continues in the US over how far reporters can go in seeking information in situations that could involve national security. That is another story.

Journalists make mistakes like everyone else, but on a whole here in Bermuda we should be proud of the job they do. No it’s not perfect, but few would doubt every effort is made to be as professional as possible.

In this new age of the social electronic media, good journalists will continue to have a tough time keeping basic principles first in carrying out their duties. It is a very challenging profession that is needed, and that is why the role of the press is vital in any free society.

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Published May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 19, 2013 at 6:17 pm)

It’s better to be second, and right, than to be first, and wrong

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