Spelling Counts-and Facts Count, Too

Another mass shooting led to wall-to-wall news coverage. The Washington D.C. navy yard shooter sent newsrooms scrambling to zero in on who killed 12 people and why. As these stories break, never let the facts get in the way.

NBC and CBS both blundered big time. The organizations misidentified a Virginia man as the suspect because that man’s ID was found near the shooter. The rush to get the story first is overshadowed by the requirement that the news organizations should get it right. While the wrong ID was retracted, the damage was done. The man is not only still trying to refute the erroneous news report, but is grieving, since he lost a friend in the shooting rampage.

How often do we see or hear news organizations make mistakes? Even if the mistake is mispronouncing the name of a street or a person, a correction should be made. Most often, the mistakes are ignored. Do the news people think no one will notice? At the very least, the next time the name comes up, the name should be pronounced correctly. Mistakes happen, but to simply ignore them is against everything you are supposed to learn in journalism.

When I was a morning anchor at the local NPR station, the reporters at the time were quite green. One of the reasons I was hired at the time was the news boss respected my experience, my work ethic and ability to work to get it right. One morning, a reporter’s recorded piece had three mistakes. Though it was very early in the morning, I called the news director and explained the mistakes. The answer I received was, “The mistakes aren’t THAT bad; air the piece.” I did NOT air the piece.

It’s one thing to make an error when you are reporting live. It’s something completely different when a recorded piece has mistakes and you knowingly air that piece. Sorry, not on my watch.

Misidentifying someone in your story is a terrible mistake. Retracting the mistake and correcting it is a requirement and should be taken care of as soon as possible. NBC and CBS made those retractions, but for the Virginia man, his name is still coming up in connection with the story. I won’t mention his name here because I don’t want this short blog to be another place his name is mentioned.

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Frank Reynolds, ABC News anchor, died 1983

The speed at which the news cycle works today is mind boggling. The problem is, fact-checking rarely happens – if at all. In 1981, President Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt. His aid, James Brady was critically wounded in the attempt. ABC news anchor Frank Reynolds happened to be a close friend of Brady’s. The networks erroneously announced that Brady had been killed. The information turned out to be wrong. Reynolds, on the air, burst out: “Let’s get it NAILED DOWN…somebody…let’s find out! Let’s get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!” It was one of the only times a TV news anchor lost it on the air. Let’s get it straight – before we rush to air stories. Being first isn’t always the best idea.

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