WNEP-TV, a large regional station in northeastern
Pennsylvania, led its noon news, Friday, Sept. 11, with the announcement that
there was finally a compromise on the state budget.
The legislators have been playing politics, stalling, and
delaying for more than two months, leaving Pennsylvania the only state without
a budget. To the viewer, it seemed that the executive branch and the legislative
branch finally figured out that the people�s money needed to be budgeted and
used. This would have been great news -- except that in the same story, we also
learned there were still some details to be worked out.
By the evening news, Gov. Ed Rendell said there was still
much to be done and there was no solution, and it may still be weeks before he
could sign an acceptable budget. The breathless �breaking news at noon� was
just another instance of not verifying information before putting it on the air.
Earlier that day, the Coast Guard was conducting a routine
low-profile pre-planned drill on the Potomac. The Coast Guard conducts such
drills about four times a week in that area. The president was nearby, having
delivered a speech honoring those who died eight years earlier on 9/11. As part
of the drill, one of the participants audibly said, �bang, bang, bang.� Apparently, CNN, which was monitoring
a Coast Guard radio frequency, didn�t hear anyone say �This is a drill; this is
a drill,� something that is routine communication for -- well -- a drill. Four
minutes after �bang, bang, bang� aired, the Coast Guard even stated �Scenario
Unless you�re a TV network desperate to score points by
being the first to broadcast what it thought was news, you�re as likely to
think there was actual gunfire as you are likely to hear someone say �arf,
arf, arf� and think a real dog was barking.
Nevertheless, CNN rushed onto the air with what it labeled
as breaking news, breathlessly telling its viewers there was an incident on the
Potomac and that shots were fired near the president. Reuters news agency
picked up the CNN report and tagged it as �urgent,� followed by Fox News, which
Based upon the CNN reporting, the FAA closed National
Airport for 30 minutes and delayed 17 flights, and the FBI rushed a rapid
response team to the site.
The Department of Homeland Security is now conducting an
investigation. But this investigation isn�t focused upon CNN for inaccurate
reporting, nor upon the FAA or the FBI for not verifying the information. This
investigation is of the Coast Guard, which did what it is supposed to do -- conduct
drills and protect America�s shores.
The government can�t investigate the media for inaccurate
reporting. Nor can it demand that any news outlet do the most basic fact
checking before rushing a story into print or onto the air. As viewers watch �the
most trusted name in network news� or the network that proclaims not only is it
�fair and balanced� but it�s �America�s News HQ,� perhaps they should demand
that the networks begin each of their stories with �Did you hear the one about
. . . ?�
Nevertheless, if these were the only two instances of a
vacuum in media credibility, it might be shoveled aside. But what happened in
one day is just a part of the problem, and one reason why Americans, sometimes
unfairly, believe there is a significant problem with media credibility.
Joseph Pulitzer, one of America�s most respected and
powerful publishers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, once said
there are three rules of journalism--�Accuracy! Accuracy!! Accuracy!!!� The
media�s failure to verify the truth violates not only Pulitzer�s three rules
for journalists, but also a basic lesson of Newswriting 101, now forgotten in
the 24/7 ratings-obsessed news media, that it�s more important to get it right
than to be the first.
Rosemary and Walter Brasch are award-winning
columnists. Rosemary is also a former Red Cross national disaster family
services specialist, secretary, and labor issues college instructor. Walter is
a former newspaper and magazine reporter/editor. He is a professor of
journalism and author of 17 books, including �Sex and the Single Beer Can,� �Probing the Media and American Culture.�
You may contact the Brasches at firstname.lastname@example.org.