- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

Get it first or get it right? Eager journalists still face the same high-stakes quandary.

When music label EMI hinted Sunday of “an exciting new digital offering,” much of the press immediately assumed that the British company was going to sell its coveted cache of Beatles tunes through Apple’s online store at a mere $1.29 a track. Headlines full of musical puns followed — until EMI announced yesterday that John, Paul, George and Ringo were not part of the deal.

Speculation takes on a life of its own in the 24/7 news cycle.

It was John Edwards’ turn March 22. Once the Democratic presidential hopeful scheduled a “major” announcement, the media food chain rattled with political implications, rife with incorrect reports that Mr. Edwards would drop out of the race because of his wife’s failing health. The unsourced story erupted at ThePolitico.com and via a Reuters wire dispatch — and was instantly amplified in print and broadcast.

“There’s no tonight, no tomorrow anymore. We’re just dealing with the now. But journalistic basics still apply no matter how accelerated the news gets,” Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher magazine said yesterday. “You’re vigilant about breaking the story, but you’re even more vigilant about sourcing it. There are those out there who don’t bother. Tips can come from less credible areas.”

News values in the age of blogging are a work in progress.

“I believe a blog item is different than a story — not in standards of accuracy or fairness — but in the ability to report and reveal a breaking story in real time. You write what you know when you know it. But, and here’s where you went wrong and we let you go wrong, you can not write more than you know,” Politico editor John Harris noted in an e-mail to writer Ben Smith, who initially reported the Edwards story.

Mr. Strupp applauds such media “transparency.” With increasing frequency, savvy news organizations explain the genesis of blockbuster stories and gaffes alike. In years past, the New York Times and CBS News spent months tracing dubious accounts from reporter Jayson Blair, who plagiarized material, and anchorman Dan Rather, who broadcast erroneous information about President Bush’s National Guard service.

“It is much worse being wrong than being second,” said Alex Jones of the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

“In the 2000 presidential election, news organizations shared the same exit poll information, yet most erroneously and prematurely called the election for the wrong candidate, except for the Associated Press. They had self-discipline that night, and it paid off,” Mr. Jones said.

Big juicy headlines still beckon. In January 2006, 135 out of 280 U.S. newspapers initially reported that a dozen West Virginia miners had “miraculously” survived a cave-in. In reality, only one survived. In 2005, Newsweek falsely reported that American military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet, sparking riots in Afghanistan that killed 17. The magazine later acknowledged that the report was “highly irresponsible.”

“We’re all after the same story. But new technology and breakneck competition should not swallow old, proven news values and credibility,” said Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

“Absolutely, journalists must discern between ‘I know’ and ‘I think I know’ ,” Mr. Lichter added.

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