When News Breaks: Making Sense of the News

press_equipment_400_clr_9515Last week’s tragic events in Boston had the news media scrambling and the whole nation glued to their screens ( TV, computer, mobile) for every twist and turn.

There was some stellar reporting and some egregious errors. No excuses, but I can tell you from experience, newsgathering is messy and covering breaking news is even messier.

The first comments from even the most trusted sources are generally only bits and pieces of the story and may prove inaccurate once more facts become known.

Hard working, serious journalists do not set out to make mistakes deliberately. Still, when reporters do get it wrong, the news organization has an obligation to quickly correct the record, apologize for the error and re-commit to doing better.

TV news adds another layer of complexity when it decides to stay on the air LIVE indefinitely, in what’s called wall-to-wall coverage, during an unfolding crisis.  A lot of missteps can occur, because the newsroom gets swamped and new accurate information does not flow onto the air in an orderly fashion.

To pass the time waiting for the next fresh bit of information, anchors and reporters repeat endlessly what appear to be the facts at the time and experts may expound on all manner of minutiae that will have no relevance once the dust settles and the full story is sorted out.

Even though the broadcasters may keep saying, “folks, we don’t have all the facts in yet and this may change,” the act of putting the information on the air gives it the appearance and weight of fact.

Add the rapid fire activity on social media and the opportunity for lies, half-truths and distortions gets bigger. ( To be fair, social media is also valuable in news. ie -CNN’s reporters on the ground could not be sure what they were seeing when the second suspect was taken into custody, but confirmation came moments later when the Boston Police Department tweeted they got him.)

That’s why, as media consumers, viewers need to have their own yardstick for gauging the information presented. There’s a whole area of education called media literacy to help everyone think more critically about what they see, hear and read in all types of media, not just the news but in movies,advertising, etc. You can read about the basic tenets here:  Introduction to Media Literacy

I use a simpler test in the spirit of the old Ronald Reagan cold war quote, “Trust, but verify.”

Here are 3 steps I apply during breaking news:

  • Consider the Source: Where is this information coming from and what are their  qualifications for knowing this information?  For example, you wouldn’t ask the coroner how the search for the suspects is going.
  • Is This for Real?  Does something sound plausible or preposterous?   To be sure, news is unpredictable and shocking things do happen, but sometimes in the rush to fill long hours of live coverage, outlandish ideas get air time.  Trust your gut.
  • Think for Yourself.  Question what you’re hearing, check the coverage from more than one news outlet and be a bit skeptical. Recognize that in a chaotic developing situation, first reports will be incomplete and expect that not every detail that gets reported will hold up.

Yes, it is the media professional’s job to inform us and to get it right.  But I believe, as media consumers, it’s our job to use our own filters and best judgment to make sense of the news.

How do you get and decipher the news?   Please leave a comment.

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Janet Vasil

On-Camera, Speaker & Media Coach/Trainer at Vasil Media Group | Your Media Moment & Beyond
Communication Coach, Media Trainer & Founder Janet Vasil is a former award-winning, EMMY®-nominated TV Journalist who helps rising and future business leaders communicate with courage and charisma on-camera, and off. Contact at http://bit.ly/Talk2Janet

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