Get it First? Or Get it Right?

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Watching the tragedy of the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the slayings of several other people unfold in real time over the weekend was gutwrenching.

Being no where near a TV, I monitored the twitter feeds of major news organizations to get the latest information. I was shocked and saddened at the savagery that unfolded in a suburban parking lot – where the world is supposed to be safe.

What also troubles me was the multiple retractions of media reports that Giffords and several other people had died (when they had not, or had not yet) and many other flat-out innacuracies that were later “corrected” by news sources we count on for reliable information.

This is inexcusable. News media (and I know my journalist friends will agree with me) have an obligation – before getting a story first – to get a story right.

It made me flashback to my training in a New York City newsroom almost two decades ago, when I gave a piece of bad information to an editor, who wisely caught my mistake. The tip lacked credible cross-checking, and the error would have resulted in the radio station announcing the death of a fireman, by name, who’s family might have been listening.

“You can’t un-kill someone, kid,” the editor warned me, before handing me back my notes scribbled on a piece of paper by young hands eager to break a big story. “Be more careful next time.”

Imagine, for a moment, the impact that the false reporting of Gifford’s death had on her extended family across the country, as they watched (what they thought were) reliable news broadcasts for word of her condition. One moment, they were told their daughter/wife/sibling was gone. Then, later, a retraction. She’s still alive.

The pain these families suffered was needless – inflicted by newsrooms caught up in the silly game of “getting it first” – and who took the word of unverified, anonymous, or unauthorized sources just to splash a scoop all over twitter, facebook and news websites.

(BTW, sources are termed “unauthorized” for a reason; now you know why = they’re unreliable).

Some will argue that’s the price of doing business in a digital world: that everything is faster and sometimes we break a few eggs to make the omlette. Nonsense. I say it’s a callous abdiction of a sacred duty to report accurately and to the best of one’s ability the first time.

Worse is, sloppy reporting like what we witnessed this weekend sullies, by association, the hard-earned reputations of thousands of great (and I mean REALLY GREAT) reporters all over the country who work hard to get a story right and first, and do it day after day. They are fantastic people who do a tough job for very little reward.

There are times to “get it first.” Literal life-and-death situations are not one of those times.