I must apologize to my inside-the-Beltway colleagues. Yes, I have maligned you unfairly. For years now I’ve been bemoaning your inability (unwillingness) to be actual journalists and actually commit journalism instead of the cheap and tawdry brand of stenography you so clearly prefer. But I see now the error in my ways.
It’s not just you. It’s our whole damned profession.
My first inkling of this new revelation came during the Newtown shooting coverage, when so much false and/or speculative information was presented as the gospel truth that it could have filled its own Wiki. And now, after the Dorner manhunt in California, my eyes are open, at long last.
My colleagues, you’re a bunch of lazy-assed wannabes wanting to be first so bad that you’ve lost sight of what journalism actually is.
And don’t blame this on social media. It’s true that Twitter and Facebook can get something around the world and on the smart phones of millions before you can bat an eye. But this drive to be first, to forget the dictum “Get it fast, but get it right,” really must be laid right at the feet of the 24-hour cable news networks, who can’t bear to spend even as much as five minutes saying “We just don’t know right now,” especially if one of the other networks is grabbing some scurrilously sourced information and running with it as if their lives depended on it.
What’s missing? Critical thinking. Or, in many cases, any thinking whatsoever. I found my jaw on the floor last night watching my colleagues running each other over to report, from anonymous sources of course, that Christopher Dorner’s body had been pulled from the charred embers of the cabin where he’d taken refuge from police. This, while the damn cabin is still fully engulfed in flames. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to be skeptical of that source’s information, but apparently, it is over the heads of journalists.
THE CABIN IS STILL BURNING. I CAN SEE IT ON LIVE TV. I CAN HEAR ON THE POLICE SCANNER OFFICERS SAYING THEY’RE NOT GOING IN UNTIL THE FIRE’S OUT AND THE FIRE DEPARTMENT SAYS IT’S SAFE. But never mind, a source who wants anonymity and is in some office somewhere says they got Dorner’s body out and that’s enough to go to air.
My favorite part, of course, is that this anonymous source was universally described as being from the Los Angeles Police Department, which was not on the scene. And that is until the Riverside Police chief, also not on the scene, said the same thing, which is even dumber than trying to be anonymous and talk about things you don’t know anything about.
But never mind, those reports went on the air. And then when actual public information officer from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office on the scene said things like, “The cabin is burning. It’s too hot to go in so we haven’t gone in, and I have no idea who is telling you otherwise,” what do the so-called journalists do? Why, they say “conflicting reports!” Just wouldn’t do to admit they were being complete idiots by rushing to air, or Twitter, or the website or anywhere else with unconfirmed information that they seriously should have questioned based on simple common sense.
The cabin is burning. It’s very hot. Nobody’s going in there until the Fire Department says it’s safe, and you really don’t need a police spokeswoman to tell you that. Nor do you need a police spokeswoman to tell you that even when they get in, should they find a body, it will be a while before they can positively identify it, because, you know, fire.
I actually heard from one reporter that she’d overheard officers talking about getting dental records to do the identification at the cabin. Really? Seriously? They’re going to, what? Compare the X-rays with a charred body? It didn’t cross her mind that, oh, I don’t know — maybe she misheard?
So no, once again, just like in Newtown, this barrage of false information isn’t the fault of social media. Sure, it spreads like wildfire on social media, but these reports were first broadcast on television. Every.Single.One.Of.Them. Look at the Twitter streams. They all say “CBS is reporting,” “CNN is reporting” or whatever.
Part of the problem is depending on anonymous sources, which, once upon a time, was reserved only for the most extreme cases, like, for example, “I’d rather you didn’t use my name because if you do, I’ll probably be killed.” “Because I’m not authorized to talk about it” is a shit reason, and it really means “because I don’t know dick but you think I’m important.”
So here’s a few tips to become better journalists.
STOP USING ANONYMOUS SOURCES. If your source doesn’t want to be attached to the information, leave it out. It’s questionable, seriously questionable. And half the time it’s pure speculation, what they hope is true.
That was the case with Dorner. The cops all hoped they had him. They even felt fairly certain they did. But they didn’t know for sure. Not a single one of them. Anybody saying they did know for sure was an ass.
That means, DON’T CONFUSE WISHFUL THINKING FOR TRUTH. You know the LAPD confused enough people with Dorner before this. They even shot up a couple of pickup trucks they thought might be driven by Dorner, even though neither of the drivers looked anything like him. Make them prove it. And besides, the LAPD was waiting at an airport for San Bernardino County to call them in. SBC never did.
And finally, THINK. Take notes, make sure the story makes sense. Make sure you have the complete story. For a while yesterday, journalists thought Dorner had hostages in the cabin. He had hostages in another cabin, where yesterday’s fun started. This didn’t take too much to figure out, but for hours reporters were conflating the two. Same thing with the report that Gov. Jerry Brown was going to attend the funeral of an officer allegedly killed by Dornan. They reported that it was the SBC deputy whose funeral Brown would attend when in fact it was a Riverside deputy whose funeral was today.
I just cringe anymore when any big story like this kicks off because I know what’s gonna happen. My chosen profession will fall several more notches down the list of “trusted people.” And why not? By and large, we just ain’t very trustworthy anymore. Because we’ve got to be first.
Some of us belong to an organization called the Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ has a code of ethics, and the main headings are these: Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable.
Far too many of us don’t even approach those standards, and frankly, nobody’s holding our feet to the fire. But then, we shouldn’t need anybody to do that, because that’s what journalism really is.
Common sense. It’s really not that hard.