CBS Evening News Anchor Scott Pelley called on journalists to worry less about the "vanity"of being first on a breaking news story and to worry more about being right. He made the criticism while accepting a journalism award May 10, 2013 from Quinnipiac University. Pelley says mistakes are being made because reporters often use information from uncorroborated pages of social media. He rallied against "vanity" and "self-conceit," as the drivers of a real-time scramble to be first with any new crumb of information posted on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.
"This is not journalism. That's gossip. Journalism was invented as an antidote to gossip," said Pelley. "It's a world where everybody is a publisher and no one is an editor. We're getting the big stories wrong over and over again." Pelley added up the mountain of mistakes - from the Newtown school massacre, the Boston Marathon Bombings to the escape of three women held hostage in a Cleveland house for 10 years - as evidence that journalism's house in on fire.
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Make this headline your computer screen saver.
Blow it up and post it in the newsroom, master control, the main studio and in the news booth.
It's a great quote from the fourth episode of HBO'sThe Newsroom . It should be the rule when media is dealing with breaking news and has to decide whether or not to report that someone has died.
The quote comes from a senior producer who rejects demands by the president of ACN Network to order anchor Will McAvoy to report that Congresswoman Gabby Giffords is dead because all the other TV networks were reporting she died after being shot in the head during a political rally.
News Night anchor McAvoy listens to the producer and ignores his boss. The message that it's a person and only a doctor can pronounce someone dead, not a news network is something to live by in a breaking news situation when other news outlets are reporting the unconfirmed death of someone.
While the show is fiction, the story line is true. The congresswoman was declared dead by one news outlet and everyone else jumped on the bandwagon to report she had died from the gun shot to the head. Turns out, she wasn't dead and today she is making an incredible recovery.
If you're not in media, you can't appreciate the pressure that exists during breaking news stories involving famous people when they're injured in an accident, victims of foul play, illness or just old age. One news outlet reports the person is dead and bosses are shouting why don't we have the story.
The bigger the name, the more pressure to follow the crowd and declare them dead. Funny how there is never a rush in media to kill off someone who isn't famous.
Here's another quote worth plastering the radio station with:
You can quote me on this one.
The need to be first does not outweigh the need to be right.
Especially when dealing with important breaking news stories and high profile individuals.
Just because it's on the internet doesn't mean it's true.
Just because the competition is saying it doesn't make it true.
Confirm! Confirm! Confirm!
Call the person. Call their family. Call their place of employment.
Believe me, it's better to call for confirmation than have to call to apologize later for saying that person was dead when they weren't.
When news breaks you need to let everyone not listening to your radio station at the time know what is happening. Twitter the news with a link to your station website coverage. If you're doing it right the user name of your Twitter account should be the radio station or name of your show.
Social media should not be an afterthought anymore. It is needs to be part of your plan to bring people to your station in time of breaking news coverage.
Update Twitter constantly with NEW information. Tweet followers what is coming up in your breaking news coverage. For example promote on Twitter time of press conference being carried live. Tweet reporter about to go live from the scene. Tweet latest info from the scene or quote an eye witness.
You need to spread the word to get people to tune in to hear what you're doing live right now.
If you don't let the world know about your live breaking news coverage, you'll only be taking to those who are tuned in at the time. Tell the world and invite them to listen online or to your radio station. Tell them and they will come to your station. Don't and they'll go to the other station doing a better job of promoting their breaking news coverage on social media.
There is no bigger breaking news story than on election night.
To provide the results it has to be all hands on deck.
Reporters and any other on air people should be at key riding headquarters in your market. Make sure you go to them often on the air. Make sure they get you the winning and losing candidates on air to be interviewed by your broadcast team in master control.
You will need two anchors on election night to do updates every 15 minutes.
Top and bottom of the hour use one anchor for overall results. Assign a producer to help them line up the reporters or interviews. At :15 and :45 use a second anchor who also has a producer working with them. This means each anchor is on the air only once a half hour.
It is a busy but manageable pace for the anchors. But they must have a producer to assist them in coordinating the contributors for their updates.
The number one mistake newsrooms make when breaking news happens is sending EVERYONE to the scene. Yes, you want to send as many people as possible to where the news event is happening. But you need to also keep some people available to go to the hospital.
Chances are by the time your news teams arrive on the scene, the injured have been transported to hospital for treatment of their injuries. You need someone to be at the hospital because this is where the victims can tell you their stories.
The key word here is: victims. They are an important part of the story.
You get eye witnesses at the scene. But you can usually only get victims at the hospital.
Now you're probably asking, how can I interview the victims if they are being treated. Well, those with minor injuries will be released and available to talk. But what most news people don't understand is that a lot of times people who were on the scene with the victims go to the hospital to be with them.
It stands to reason. If you're with someone injured in a crash, an explosion or whatever. You want to be with them at the hospital.
The hospital is also where families of the victims go.
It is also where you will get accurate information about the number of injuries and fatalities from hospital officials. An important part of the story. You also have access to police, EMS and firemen who were at the scene.
By splitting up your teams and sending them to different locations you will provide a more comprehensive sounding coverage to your listeners. This is what will set you apart from your competition. It will give you an edge on breaking news coverage.
The best way to beat the competition during breaking news is not wait for confirmation from authorities to send a reporter.
We're not suggesting you go on air with unconfirmed information. We're suggesting don't wait for confirmation to mobilize the troops to get to the scene of the event.
That is the job of the reporter. To go and find out what is happening. But too many newsrooms wait for authorities to get back to them with details before a decision is made to go to the scene. Usually it's because of lazy reporters who don't want to leave the comfort of their newsroom to chase what they think might be a false alarm. Or someone is afraid to make the call for fear it is a false alarm and the reporter gets upset with them
I've chased more than my share of false alarms when I was a street reporter. No big deal. It's the nature of the job.
But I also beat the competition a lot of times because I sprung into action as soon as I heard the call over the police radio. Arriving with the cops minutes after a bank robber blew himself up or with firemen as people jumped from a burning nightclub.
The further away the event is unfolding, the faster you have to make a decision to go and check it out. The newsroom can always call you off the chase if they find out it's not as bad as first feared.
In radio and television you build your reputation and that of the newsroom on how quick you react to a situation to get to the scene before the competition.
Again, just to be clear. I'm advocating don't wait for confirmation from authorities about what sounds like a major breaking news story to head to the scene. I'm NOT saying go to air with unconfirmed information. And I definitely don't think a reporter should be tweeting information about unconfirmed reports until they know it's true. Then they can tweet they're on the way to the event or once they arrive.
The best way to beat the competition during breaking news is to ask listeners to call in and describe on air what they see happening at the scene.
When Air France Flight 358 crashed at Toronto's Pearson Airport in August of 2005 most radio stations waited for their reporters to get to the scene or to rely on authorities to provide them updates.
But traffic chaos around the airport delayed the arrival of reporters and authorities were slow in releasing information.
The radio stations who encouraged listeners near the scene or driving along the 401 by the airport to call in and describe what they were seeing provided the best news coverage of the event. 680News won an award on the strength of a caller who happened to be driving by when the plane skidded off the runway and burst into flames.
A few years later when forest fires threatened Kelowna, BC an FM music station turned to citizen journalism to provide listeners with the latest information. Along the way that station won a Canadian Association of Broadcasters Gold Ribbon Award for its coverage.