Beware the fog of breaking news
CHANNEL 4 News has learnt a hard lesson in the wake of the Westminster terror attack. It had to apologise – and pull a repeat of its news programme – after wrongly naming a man in prison as the terrorist. It wasn’t alone – a handful of other international news organisations jumped to the wrong conclusion too.
Mistakes happen. But in the age of “fake news” and plummeting trust in the media, it’s a serious error.
How does this happen? It’s not a new problem. During the manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, CNN, The New York Post and a group of social media vigilantes on Reddit also made mis-identifications. It remains a clear case study of how the rush to publish or broadcast can lead even the best astray.
In the adrenalin-charged chase for information during a major breaking-news event, the temptation for news organisations to overreach in the hope of exclusivity and impact can be too great. But as I tell generations of student journalists at Cardiff University each year: “If you’re first and wrong, you’re not first.”
Channel 4 News’s apology said its correspondent quoted a source he trusted naming the attacker. No further information on who the source was or where the information came from was provided.
Like many news addicts, I was watching Twitter as the attack and aftermath unfolded. Shortly after 6pm, before Channel 4 News was on the air, I saw two American journalists offer the name along with an archive picture of him compared to pictures of Wednesday’s attacker saying: “Looks like the same guy.”
Other international news services followed suit – those tweets have now been deleted.
The point about social media is, even when it appears to come from established jour nalists, it often amounts to little more than bar talk. It’s raw gossip or information which requires the editorial disciplines of verification.
It is the noise of unsourced chatter, drowning out the signal of fully sourced news-gathering.
Mistakes such as Channel 4’s (and I single it out only as the most recent transgressor – any news organisation is vulnerable) occur for a mix of reasons. In today’s hyper-competitive environment, there is a premium – misplaced in my view – on being first.
Actually, most consumers are not monitoring parallel feeds and have little idea of who is first – and care less. Exclusivity in today’s second-by-second news cycle lasts moments at best.
Added to this is the need to have impact – to demonstrate the value of your programme or news feed above all others. This is compounded by shrinking budgets and resources as advertising declines and the need to invest in more and more digital platforms erodes the core mission. In this climate, short cuts can seem attractive.
We live in a highly complex media environment – fed by algorithms, gamed by political or commercial interests, favouring sensation over authority, showcasing opinion over fact. Few consumers or jour nalists fully understand how infor mation works in this environment.
News organisations need some new skills to cope – but they also need to cling to some old principles that have guided news gathering over many years:
1) In the immediate aftermath of a breaking news event, much information will be wrong.
2) Don’t trust secondary or single sources.
3) Assume nothing, trust nobody, check everything twice.
Twenty-six years ago, I was in the BBC’s live TV control room as the first bombs fell on Baghdad in the Gulf War. There was a news agency report that Iraq had attacked Israel with chemical weapons. One news network ran it and others then picked it up quoting two sources. I had to restrain an adrenalin-fuelled presenter from announcing it. It was just a rumour, fed into the feedback loop of live news, that proved to be wrong.
Now the rumours and feedback are exponentially greater.
We should all beware the fog of breaking news. Professional news organisations, even in today’s hyper-competitive arena, need to remember the lessons of the past. Sambrook is a professor of journalism at Cardiff University.
A photograph of policeman Keith Palmer, who was killed in the Westminster terror attack, is placed in central London on Thursday. Channel 4 News had to apologise for wrongly naming a suspect.