Speed and credibility

NPR was reporting definitively that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been shot dead, but The Associated Press was holding off. The lines into the A.P. offices, recalled A.P.’s executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, were buzzing with complaints: where was The A.P. on this story? How could it let NPR beat it?

Meanwhile, the lines into the New York Times offices were hot as well, said Greg Brock, senior editor/standards: where was The Times on this story?

No doubt, the pressure to report the latest news was intense immediately after the shootings in Tucson on Jan. 8. The difference between The A.P. and The Times on this occasion, though, was that The A.P. held off and was right, while The Times eventually jumped in with an online report of Ms. Giffords’s death, and was wrong.

The mistake, quickly corrected, happened because of a breach in The Times’s editing defenses as it worked to cover the story quickly from a distance. The episode dramatizes an important philosophical choice that editors face in an era that has transformed the way formerly old-media organizations like The Times handle and deliver the news.

While it’s true that in the bygone era of print-only newspapers, editors sometimes had to make tough on-deadline calls about the accuracy of their reporting (“Dewey Defeats Truman” comes to mind), the reality is that digital news delivery on a continuous cycle drastically increases the volume and the difficulty of these decisions.

Organizations, like The Times, that have built their reputations on authoritativeness now must ask themselves: How much of our reputation should we lay on the line in the name of being first in breaking news, or at least not being a laggard?

This decision — whether to be first or most authoritative — is a portentous one, some believe, and is likely to define the future reputations of news organizations. Others, including Bill Keller, The Times’s executive editor, say this is a false dichotomy: it’s possible to do both.

Tim McGuire, an academic and a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, is doubtful about having it both ways. “This is becoming a choice: Am I going to be first? Is that going to be my brand, or am I going to be the credible one?”

“I am not sure you can do both,” said Mr. McGuire, who teaches at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I am pretty sure you cannot. I am convinced that in this day you are not going to be able to be all things to all people.”

It’s hard to be both. Take it from The A.P., which has its own people in 300 locations globally and therefore is better positioned than any other news organization to have boots on the ground when news breaks. Ms. Carroll, its executive editor, warns that when you get something wrong, typically in a breaking news situation, “people remember for 130,000 years. Everybody remembers that we killed Bob Hope before he was dead.”

That said, news organizations cannot bring themselves, it seems, to eschew the twin goals — arguably incompatible goals — of being first and most credible. Even Ms. Carroll said, “We have to be able to do both.”

It’s in the blood, it seems. I sought out television journalists to get perspective on this journalistic credo, in part because television has been dealing with the challenge of immediate news much longer than its print counterparts, which, thanks to the Internet, are now in the always-on news-breaking mode as well.

Brian Bracco, a veteran news director who is now Hearst Television’s vice president for news, put it this way: “That’s our nature — to be there first, to report it first, to let our audience know what’s going on.”

Journalists are competitive; their nerve endings burn with a compulsion to beat rivals to a story. They operate on a belief that audiences flock to whoever can move first with breaking news. Yet everyone I talked to — including Mr. Bracco and others who place value on being first — cautioned that it’s always better to be second and right than first and wrong.

One who takes the thought further is Aaron Brown, the CNN anchor who rode herd over coverage of the 9/11 attacks and is now a professor at the Cronkite School.

“My first reaction to my print brethren these days is, welcome to my world,” he said.

Mr. Brown said experience had taught him that, in the early moments, sources are often wrong. “In the chaos of a breaking story,” he said, “all of us who have dealt with it, if we are honest with ourselves, have to ask ourselves: Are we sure? Because we all have been burnt, every one of us.”

In Mr. Brown’s view, the rush to publish is misplaced. “We mistake our own urgency for the urgency viewers feel,” he said. “I just don’t think they feel that. I think they would say to us, we would rather you took another minute and got it right.”

To bring this back around to The Times, Mr. Keller, the executive editor, weighs in with the view that the tension between speed and accuracy is “real but exaggerated.”

“Every mistake is a mistake too many,” he wrote me in an e-mail message, “but we do not make many serious mistakes because a) reporters are told that while delivering the news in a timely fashion is valuable, getting it right is more important than getting it first, and b) editors are told to filter out information that we don’t think is sufficiently backed up.”

Dan Gillmor, an influential writer on digital news and the author of “Mediactive,” agreed that The Times should “not shy away” from competing hard in the breaking news arena. His formula for sustaining credibility is to carefully label what is known and what is not certain, an approach that Mr. Keller subscribes to.

Put me down as a skeptic. It’s understandable, given the gung-ho mentality that journalists adopt, to want to blow right by the choice — to try to be both first and most credible. But for The Times, which arguably brings the top-rated brand for authoritativeness to this battlefront, the approach is fraught with danger.

The Times, unlike The A.P., does not have its own people in 300 locations worldwide. It must rely, more than The A.P. does, on other news organizations for boots on the ground in the early moments of a story. It is better resourced for considered, in-depth coverage than it is for breakneck news delivery.

The Times has more to lose than anyone else if, next time, it is the one that kills off Bob Hope prematurely.

This column was originally published on The New York Times on Jan. 29, 2011.

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