In the summer issue of PR Strategist, Boston PR professional Ed Cafasso writes in his article, “A World of Publishers, but Too Few Editors: Why the Choice Between Speed and Accuracy Isn’t a Contest,” about the importance of communicating accurately, not communicating first.
Cafasso writes, “Dewey defeated Truman nearly 65 years before several top U.S. media outlets…wrongly reported the arrest of a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing case”– citing the infamous case where the Chicago Tribune inaccurately reported the results of the 1948 Presidential Election. “Mistakes in journalism aren’t anything new. The lust for the exclusive, the desire to be first or to be famous, poor reporting, poor editing…all of these failings and others have tripped up the media on a regular basis for hundreds of years.”
The speed-versus-accuracy debate facing journalists and members of the media is also a top of mind issue for PR professionals. Cafasso states, “Our professions rely on people believing in our content. Whether we are launching a new product, promoting a cause marketing partnership or publishing a byline on a public policy issue, our audiences must believe in the sincerity and truthfulness of our work.”
Cafasso offers four main strategies for mitigating errors in your credibility:
- The choice between speed and accuracy isn’t a contest – Let’s say, for example, you are the first to report something….well, what if you are wrong? You lose all the initial credibility, plus some. “Since ‘firsts’ last between 15 seconds and 15 minutes these days, there’s not much upside, especially if you’re compromising accuracy,” Cafasso says.
- The tools are not the enemy – Cafasso emphasizes the importance of not blaming the medium itself as the culprit behind a mistake if one occurs. He states, “Ignorant or unethical people will produce ignorant or unethical content just as educated and informed people will produce educated and informed content.”
- Understand your audience’s habits as content consumers – It’s crucial to understand the key ways in which your audience communicates and opts to receive messages. Cafasso discusses how at key moments in the Boston bombing, “significant numbers of Boston-area residents ages 18 to 34 had their TVs on and their Twitter feeds open simultaneously – not because the two platforms are equally credible, but to fulfill their desire for instant gratification.”
- The channels giveth; the channels taketh away – You may have noticed reluctance in some of your clients to embrace social media for fear of negative consequences, but in this strategy Cafasso argues that those same forms of communication that often strike fear in folks can more often be used for positive outcomes. For example, during the Boston bombings, the Boston Police Department used Twitter as a means to communicate accurate information during the investigation.
It’s easier than ever to distribute information. All it takes is the assembly of 140 characters or less and the ability to hit “send” for every fact or error to be out there for the world to see and talk about. Cafasso says it is a struggle content distributors face every day – with no real be-all, end-all solution in sight. “No one has proposed any breathtaking new rules or silver-bullet mechanisms to ensure that those of us in the content business are balancing speed and accuracy.”
When CBS veteran news anchor Scott Pelley accepted the 20th annual Fred Friendly First Amendment Award, he stated:, “In a world where everyone is a publisher, no one is an editor. And that is the danger that we face today.”
Here are some examples you may recall of inaccurate reporting surrounding large news events in the recent past:
- In Columbine: As The Denver Post reported, the ten-year anniversary of Columbine brought along with it many factual inaccuracies about the events surrounding the shootings ten years before. “…The stories that emerged on the 10-year were often uninformed and downright inaccurate. The wrongheaded consensus was that the Columbine “myths” were just now being debunked. But the new stories were so bad that writers often propagated new myths,” the author said. One of the most infamous inaccuracies to come out of the reporting of the Columbine tragedy is the story of 17-year-old student Cassie Bernall. You may remember the story of the girl who reportedly said “yes” when asked by the shooters if she believed in God. It was widely reported that that girl was in fact Cassie, who was then shot after responding in the affirmative to the shooters. Questions of the validity of that account arose over time, and it is now considered to be false.
- In Sandy Hook: An NPR audio story from December 2012 draws attention to the many inaccuracies reported in the case of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The reporter, David Folkenflik, says “In catastrophes and crises, the press is writing in pencil and erasing it and trying again. In stories like these, the first draft of history isn’t even a draft. It’s usually just raw notes, waiting for rewrite.” One of the biggest inaccuracies by many of the most trusted news organizations was misreporting the name of the shooter – initially identifying the actual shooter’s brother as the shooter.
- In Boston: One of the inaccuracies reported in the Boston Bombing situation was that an arrest had at one point been made, before that was actually the truth. D.C. radio station WTOP reports that CNN was one of at least four major news organizations to cite anonymous sources saying an arrest had been made – along with the Associated Press, Fox News and the Boston Globe. CNN’s John King told WTOP in an interview that the mistake was “embarrassing.” In the interview, King says they had two sources confirming the arrest, but nevertheless they were wrong. “I’ve covered a couple wars and a lot of breaking news and a lot of cops-and-robbers situations. I’ve got a pretty good track record, but when you do something like this it’s embarrassing,” he says.
- At the Navy Yard: In the case of the Navy Yard shooting, some of the inaccurate reporting about possible additional shooters cannot simply be blamed on carelessness by the media. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple states, “The mix up, at least in this one circumstance, wasn’t the creation of a reckless media scramble. The authorities themselves had concerns about additional shooters, to the point that D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier appeared before the microphones around noon on Monday and issued descriptions of two other “potential” shooters.”
Ultimately, each communicator must commit to their personal credo and work hard to maintain consistent values in their communication. Doing so will help thwart the embarrassing situation of communicating an error to begin with, but will also better enable them to address inadvertent errors, re-assert credibility and move forward.