It happened again. Barely a week into 2011, an otherwise respected news outlet broke a major story by reporting that a U.S. Congresswoman in Arizona had been shot “and killed.” Within minutes of the report, others followed suit and the instant news of the “assassination” spread around the world. Though he claimed reporters had confirmed the “fact” with state officials on the scene, the organization’s chief editor was later forced to apologize for the error, which thank God, was not true.
At the same time on the other side of the world—in Australia, to be exact, where I was visiting in-laws—record-breaking floods consumed the local news coverage. Though headlines of the Arizona horror dominated front pages for a day (i.e., “Bloody Spangled Banner” or “Hatred, Anger and Bigotry in U.S. Rampage”), it was the constant updates of flash floods and torrential rains that locals cared about. Warnings were issued through the media of which towns to evacuate, fundraising efforts were televised for the Queenslanders whose homes were lost, and forecasts were announced along with locations where people could receive immediate help.
As one who both studies and practices journalism, I find the coverage of these stories instructive for the new year. Of course, with today’s technological tools, the news landscape has become a 24/7 tsunami of information, a virtual force to be reckoned with—albeit an enormously complex one. One day it can jump the gun (pun intended) while the next it can aid a storm victim. It can enlighten citizens, and it can destroy careers. It can inspire and dishearten readers. Coupled with current economic pressures, ratings wars and instant access, journalism’s very mission—to provide people the information they need to be self-governing—can be both its success and its demise.
Granted, bad journalism is hardly news.