On Friday, December 13, 2002, I killed a man… a teenager really… but only for 15 minutes.
I was a few months into my new job at The Seattle Times where I was running the homepage. The news broke that a 17-year-old teen was shot in the head by a Seattle police officer during an attempted robbery and the brief was sent my way to post.
For some reason, I assumed a gunshot to the head was fatal and wrote the headline stating that the teen was killed.
After getting rightfully chewed out by the reporter, I learned that you can survive that injury.
More than eight years later, after hearing the news coverage and premature reports of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ death, I can’t help but be reminded of my error and the lessons I’ve learned.
Throughout my career, I’ve heard people say that the Web – and now the real-time Web with social media – is a liability. A “tangled Web” of ethical problems.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Errors happen in journalism all the time and, for the most part, by accident.
It doesn’t matter what the medium is – pixels or paper, newswires or tweets – facts can be misled, misreported or misunderstood. Errors happened before the Internet. Errors happen in newspaper, radio and TV journalism.
The bottom line is that errors happen.
What matters, in my opinion, is what you do after they happen.
After profusely apologizing, I fixed the headline and immediately wrote up a correction. It may have only been 15 minutes and perhaps only a handful of readers may have seen it, but it didn’t matter. I made the mistake.
You know that debate about who is a journalist and who isn’t? It’s all pointless really. When it comes down to it, a journalist, in its true essence, is someone who has credibility in delivering accurate information. It’s the person you can trust because they have earned your trust through accuracy.
Credibility is such a fragile thing. Takes years to build, but just moments to lose.
But in a craft where facts are moving quickly and readers want information in real time, it’s not the multimedia or tech that counts… it’s your credibility.
I made an error that dinged The Times’, the reporter’s and my own credibility. Immediately posting that correction was a small, simple act of transparency to own up to it.
If you think about it, journalism is based on such a fragile thing like credibility. Trust. Faith.
The reporter, covering a news event, has to find the right sources and trust – yet verify – the information they are collecting. The reporter’s editor needs to trust that the reporter is not making this stuff up or stealing it from a competitor. The process goes from stage to stage until it gets to a reader/viewer/listener/user who then has to trust whether or not the piece is accurate.
Trust but verify. Consider the source. If your mom says she loves you, check it out.
All that before you hit publish to print or tweet your piece. All that as you consume a piece of news.
Like more and more people, I experienced the Giffords news coverage through a variety of ways that included radio, Web, TV and social streams. I heard the incorrect reports about her death and the reactions that followed. I also heard the incorrect reports about her speedy recovery and those reactions.
While mistakes were made in the coverage, the discussions afterward have been productive and insightful.
The errors happened. But what also mattered was what happened afterwards.
Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.