Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Rush to Judgment

Having had my own little experience of reporting something recently when some key detail was still in question, I was particularly intrigued by Doug Fisher's thorough assessment of the Huffington Post's reporting on the Clinton campaign hostage story. (And h/t to John McIntyre for flagging this.)

The web affords us enormous opportunities for reporting, multimedia presentations, alerting people to emergencies and so on. But what shouldn't be lost is the need for reporting, for digging up the facts accurately and not rushing to publish something we don't know.

As disconcerting as it can be, I have become a fan of the idea of posting something and then going back and adding "strikeouts" to correct information and to alert people that something may have been wrong. It gives people a look at the process, which, while not always necessary, can be useful and helps keep us honest.

The Huffington Post's reporting on this story was abysmal--the rush to publish without knowing the facts. There has been a tendency in recent years to simply publish whatever bits of information can be found--if we can find that a killer got a parking ticket 5 years ago, let's publish that! If we think maybe a guy with a mental problem is the hostage taker, let's publish everything his wife and neighbors have to say about him, the facts be damned! I guess we learned nothing from the unfortunate story of the late Richard Jewell. Where were the Huffington editors?

In my case, I wrote about the firing of an editor in Santa Barbara and asked whether he might be the same person I'd worked with in the past. Someone wrote to say no; I used strikeouts and then dug around a lot more to verify that the editor was who I thought he was. Raising questions and letting people know that you're checking on yourself is one thing. To, in effect, accuse someone of committing a crime is quite another, I would think. I don't know the source of Huffington's reports--did the incorrect name come from the mainstream press? I hope not.

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