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Sun., Dec. 21
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News first, facts later

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It isn’t an easy time to be a newspaper journalist. The proliferation of websites that are tying to do our job has been simply stunning; do a Google or Bing search for any news topic of the day and you will find hundreds of thousands, often millions, of “hits” that will lead you to some broadly known or deeply obscure Web page on the topic. How are newspapers relevant, you ask, in this environment?

Well, after watching the last two screaming live coverages of mass shooting events, at Newtown, Conn., last year and at the Washington Navy Yard two days ago, I can answer that question for you: because by and large, newspapers take the time to get it right.

In both the shooting incidents noted, an incorrect suspect’s name was broadly reported on both websites and 24-hour television news stations. In the Navy Yard shooting, the incorrect number of assailants was given for hours. Both websites and the news channels reported there were either three shooters, or as many as three shooters, for as long as eight hours after the shooting. Both websites and the news channels reported one shooter had an AR-15 assault rifle (he didn’t; he had a shotgun and a handgun) and at least some websites and news channels showed photos or footage of a man on the ground being attended to by emergency medical personnel with injuries attributed to the shooting, even though it was an entirely unrelated medical emergency.

Other than the New York Daily News, most newspapers avoided most of these reporting errors, although the Times and other papers who use AP wire stories did not get the correct information on the guns used until midday Wednesday, far too late to get the correct information in print. And that incorrect information came from official federal police sources.

Now that the furor has calmed down, it’s time for the press to reflect on where we are and how we got here.

There is a demand, of course, for instant gratification. When we can get just about anything we want by clicking on a URL link (want to buy a Gulfstream G400 personal jet with only 10,500 hours on it? Go to http://wdt.me/PrpHbR), we also want to click on a link or click our remote control to find out about whether we’re going to bomb Syria or what is going on at the Boston Marathon or who is killing people at the Washington Navy Yard. Unfortunately, those facts frequently are not known when people think they want to know them.

The thing about reporting is, it’s hard work. When we’re digging for facts for a story, they are seldom immediately available. And since we have this irritating little rule for our reporters that they must verify what they learn, it is a tedious, multilayered process. It isn’t one phone call and out, or one quick question-and-answer routine at a news scene — it’s work, work and more work. The reason, of course, is that we have an unwritten pact with our customers that we guarantee, to the best of our ability every time, to get it right. With the volume of facts we deal with, and with our reliance on people who may not have all the facts, may have a personal agenda or may just lie to us, some errors are made. But when those errors are brought to our attention, we report them promptly to our customers. The mistaken reporting on the AR15, for example, was corrected in a follow-up story on Wednesday’s page A1.

Unfortunately, all journalists are tainted by persistent mistakes made by some journalists. Our diligence goes unrewarded when people lump us in with TV news reporters and producers who, in the name of instant reporting, don’t do the work to verify their report. In the Newtown shooting, in the Boston Marathon attack, in the Navy Yard massacre, egregious errors were made. The most egregious of all were the instances when a person was named as a suspect when that was not even remotely true, which happened in all three incidents. “Dewey Beats Truman” pales by comparison. These mistakes were made in the name of getting the information out there first, rather than getting it out there right. We can only hope that the organizations that did not report bad facts did so because they were working harder to verify than their rash competitors.

At the Times, we are put in the not entirely comfortable position of having to rely on our two wire services to get facts right. Like most small daily papers, we have cut the number of wire services we subscribe to because of the cost of having them all. That decision, based on sound economics, has done more than simply reduce the variety of stories we have in our wire sections. It has also, regrettably, reduced our ability to verify facts provided in one wire story by seeking out that same story from a different source. So now, if both AP and McClatchy wire stories have the same erroneous facts, it is very difficult for us to spot them because we have fewer ways to check them. Fortunately, both those wire services work hard to get the facts straight.

In our news room, we talk a lot about reporting process. We work hard to ensure that we verify our facts. When we have to hold a story to get it right, we do so. And we resist the pressure to be first with everything; we have recently instituted a rule that all news posted to our website is edited before it goes live.

We take very seriously our compact with you that requires us to be diligent in our reporting and honest in our sourcing and presentation. We always will. And this is one important reason why we think newspapers will continue to be needed by the people. We have never, in the words of the movie “The Paper”, printed anything we knew to be wrong. And we’re never going to.

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