A little while ago, it was a few days after the” balloon boy” incident caught the attention of CNN and erupted into the leading story on every major news station and newscast in America, a friend of mine from Boston opined that since the all-news networks came into existence Americans seem to be less well informed. Year after year since CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNBC have become major sources of news coverage the American people seem to know less and less. He asked the pertinent question: Is all-news television making America stupid?
From the Canadian side of the border it has always seemed that Americans are incredibly ignorant of the world around them. Perhaps that’s just the way super powers are. I’ve heard Czechs and Poles say the same sorts of thing about the Soviet Union and Russians.
More likely there is more than a little truth to this idea. What the all-news networks have created is a need for speed. Getting on the air first and running with a story is the be-all of CNN and Fox News. This has resulted in journalists not doing their primary jobs as journalists: verifying their sources and facts to be true and accurate. The excuse: who has the time anymore?
The biggest losers in all this rush to air are the viewers, listeners and readers of news. We are reaching a point where the consumer does not know who to trust. Heck the “balloon boy” was the lead on ABC, CBS and NBC. It wasn’t just that the story ran, it was that it ran without question. Looking at that strange silver flying object I know I wondered “where could a kid be in there?” I didn’t see a bulge. I didn’t see feet or arms trying to find a way out. It seemed highly implausible. Yet there were no serious questions on any newscast I viewed until after the incident ended and the boy was found in his own attic. Why? Why ruin a great story is only thing I can think of.
The “balloon boy” wasn’t the only story in recent weeks to draw questions about how U.S. news operations are doing their jobs. A much scarier incident for the public as well as all journalists took place on September 11th, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. CNN ran with the story that there was an impending terrorist attack in Washington, DC.
Here’s how Jamie McIntyre in BS Detector, IMHO, Media Watch, saw the incident:
What fooled CNN into “breaking news” mode was realistic-sounding radio
transmissions from the Coast Guard as it conducted a routine drill to
practice procedures to be used in the event a private boat attempted
to breach the security zone it set up on the river.
There’s an irony here. CNN is one of the few networks that still
routinely monitors police radios to get a jump on news. It’s a bit
of a lost art. As an old radio reporter I listened to scanners all
the time. And they produced plenty of scoops for me over the years,
but as any good police reporter knows, you never, NEVER, report
information heard over a scanner without getting verification. Never.
It’s basic journalism 101. And it would seem that CNN, believing it
would get a jump on a potential major story, violated this inviolate
rule. (When I was at CNN I got plenty of tips from our desk that came
from overheard police or fire department transmissions, but that’s
what they were – “tips,” to be checked out. Not “initial reports” to
be put on the air only to be corrected later.)
Now CNN is certainly not the first major news organization that has
allowed its competitive instincts to overwhelm its better judgment.
Nor will it be the last. But how this story played out illustrates a
number of ways the “new media” environment has lowered standards that
are already hovering dangerously close to the ground.
There have been dozens of similar cases. Recently a media conference by a man claiming to be from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce resulted in Reuters, the New York Times and the Washington Post rushing to publish his astounding pro-environment statement. Fox Business News was actually on air reporting on his remarks when the real Chamber of Commerce folks arrived to put an end to the hoax. It turned out the faker was a man who routinely pulls anti-corporate pranks. None of the journalists there bothered to question his credentials.
Yes we have the tools to report almost instantaneously from anywhere on the globe at any time. But if we don’t use those tools properly, what’s the point? Why has speed become more important than accuracy? I suppose the answer is self evident, competition and ratings. When there’s an election to cover, or there’s an economic crisis, people will tune in to all-news television thus driving the ratings up. On a ho-hum day of normal news there is no reason to switch from ESPN or Oprah. So getting the big story and hyping it is a simple strategy to get viewers to tune in. If you are wrong, so what? So long as you drive the ratings up. Here’s more of what Jamie McIntyre had to say about the Coast Guard incident on September 11th:
Here are some factors present in today’s media universe that
contributed to, and culminated in, CNN’s inexcusable lapse:
Too Good to Check?
The first and biggest mistake CNN made was rushing to air without
waiting to get confirmation from the Coast Guard. This seems so
basic that it’s mindboggling how it could happen. But here’s why.
CNN absolutely believed it had a big story on its hands, and it had
heard it with its own ears. Everything fed that perception. The
Coast Guard was saying nothing. If it were only a drill, usually they
would know that right away. But if something were going on, only then
would authorities be reluctant to give a statement until they could
gather the facts. I’m sure if the people listening to the police
radio had heard any hint that indicated the event might be an
exercise, it would have prompted CNN to employ more caution. But
everyone in the newsroom listened as the radio crackled with the
chilling transmission, “We have expended 10 rounds.” Adrenaline
flowed. The President was nearby. It was Sept 11th. Twenty minutes
had passed and the Coast Guard seemed to be stonewalling, insisting it
still didn’t know what was going on. Finally CNN could contain itself
no longer. Convinced it was sitting on a major story, the folks in
charge rolled the dice and went with it, and figured they would get
First with the Scoop, First with the Correction: Win/Win!
CNN knew it didn’t have the full story. But in the internet age, no
one waits for the full story anymore. Not even newspapers, which
publish quick writes on their web pages to stay competitive long
before a more thoughtful version is published in the paper. In fact
the 24/7 information marketplace seems to reward rushing to air or the
web with initial, incomplete, and often inaccurate reports. This is
not seen as irresponsibly spreading information before it’s confirmed,
nailed down, or fleshed out, rather it’s seen as getting on the record
with the news that something is happening. Then, as the story is
calibrated, corrected, downscaled, and sometimes dropped by the end of
the day, each revision is treated as a separate scoop. So instead of
scoring just one “first” with a single accurate, complete report, the
news organization racks up a series of “firsts” intended to keep the
viewers/readers coming back for more. First with the bad report,
first with the better report, and finally first with real report.
It’s a win/win/win!
Another insidious aspect of the “rush to be wrong” trend is the
speculation that fills the information vacuum until facts can be
unearthed. In this respect, all-news television can reinforce the
worst tendencies of its reporters. It is fed by the desire of
producers to keep the coverage going on a breaking story even when
they have run out of fresh information. They call their
correspondents and contributors with this question, “Can you play?”
Meaning can you come on the air and say something about what’s going
on. The standard here is, can you “say something,” not “do you have
something worthwhile to say?” This results in a lot of people
babbling on the air who should be out checking the facts, instead of
offering facile and fatuous observations. CNN did this by calling on
its experts and correspondents to weigh in even when they obviously
knew nothing about what was going on. As a friend of mine, a veteran
reporter, commented to me, “What I did not hear anyone say was,
‘according to my sources at the FBI, or according my sources at the
As the ratings stand now, CNN has plummeted to 4th place among the all-news networks. They have, for the most part, taken the high road when it comes to opinion and politics. That worked for them during the primaries and election campaign, but now, without the big story, they can’t compete with the bombast and bull over at Fox. It seems, in America you can’t draw an audience with even handedness when there is no big story. The big lies about health care and President Obama’s roots lend themselves to the windbags at Fox. The result is that CNN has had to sensationalize to be noticed.
Are we seeing this in Canada? So far, only to the extent that we have so few resources outside the country that we are dependent on the news people at CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Reuters, the very people who are committing the lapses. I am also worried about the new CBC National and CBC’s all-news television channel. They too need ratings. They are resorting to far too much to the talking reporter as opposed to the reporting reporter. What I mean is that they are asking reporters to go on air and tell us what they are hearing rather than what they know. It is a dangerous way of doing business. And in Canada it is not only done for ratings purposes, it is also done to fill time. How can you fill a newscast with relevant news if the report is not yet completed? Simple, have the reporter come on air and spout innuendo for a minute. The viewer gets the impression of news even when there is none.
Is there an answer to this sorry state of affairs in journalism? I suspect we are in the middle of a revolution in news gathering business. How the internet, TV, radio and print settle out in the next few years will determine where journalism will land. One can only hope that journalism goes back into in the hands of the journalism professionals, not the bloggers, sensationalists, accountants, ad salespeople, TV doctors and bureaucrats who are all playing too large a role today.
Filed under: Media Commentary, ABC, CBC News, CBS, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, Reuters, The National, The New York Times, The Washington Post