Monday, September 17, 2007

The truth will set you free

“Accuracy first.”

That message was painted in black letters, outlined in red, on a yellow sign that was about 12 feet long and 3 feet high on the wall of the first newsroom I worked in as a professional. It was in the building housing the St. Joseph News-Press and Gazette, two daily newspapers owned by the Bradley family in St. Joseph, MO.

To a fresh J-school grad from KU, the sign seemed to state the painfully obvious.

“Accuracy first” – No sh#* Sherlock. Who in their right mind would be dealing in anything other than accuracy if they were working in a newsroom?

How naive I was.

I thought everyone in the news business was as committed to the truth as I was – and still am, by the way.

But there has not been one single week in my more than 25 years in news that I have not seen sloppy, lazy or irresponsible reporting prove the necessity of the reminder on the wall in the St. Joe newsroom. And just this past week, one of the world’s oldest and most respected news organizations published such a report.

With a dateline out of Monterrey, Mexico, and the byline of Robin Emmott, Reuters published 585 words under the headline: “Safety ‘myths’ said to block Mexico trucks from U.S.”

The headline should have been something more like: “Reuters report shows its reputation has become a myth.”

Not only did the report say that only one Mexican truck had come into the U.S. on the first day of the U.S. government’s cross-border pilot program – there were actually two trucks – but Reuters’ Emmott reported that the program had lasted only five days:

“Checks are so tight that only one truck, from Mexico’s northern city of Monterrey made it deep into the United States in the five days the project lasted.”

In many ways, it doesn’t matter how many other factual errors there were in the report from Reuters, though there were several. The damage is done. People who read the Reuters story posted on Sept. 12 will think the cross-border program was killed when the Senate voted to cut funding.

It’s not a done deal – the program is ongoing and the Senate’s version of the funding legislation must be reconciled with similar legislation from the House, which then must be approved by a conference committee and signed by President Bush before it becomes law. Even then, the administration will likely try to keep the cross-border program going through other means, which OOIDA and others will continue to oppose until safety questions are answered.

In the mean time, we are left with a grossly inaccurate report from Reuters.

For more than 150 years, the news service founded by Paul Julius Reuter and his carrier pigeons has had the respect of the public and journalists worldwide as a trusted source for accurate information. That respect was well-founded, after all, Reuters was known for not only getting it right, but getting it first.

For example, the pigeons got the financial news out two hours faster than the trains did.

And, England and the continent found out about the assassination of President Lincoln sooner rather than later, thanks to a Reuters report that reached London ahead of all others. An enterprising Reuters reporter intercepted a mail boat off the Irish coast to telegraph the news to the British Isle – the Reuters reporter beat others who had shared his 12-day Atlantic crossing and then waited for the boat to dock to file their news.

Today’s digital reporters should take a lesson from that.

Technology has made the publication of news faster than ever imagined by Paul Reuter and his feathered friends. But the rush to “get it posted” shouldn’t be an excuse for sloppy, lazy, incomplete or irresponsible reporting.

Similarly, today’s news consumers should be ever vigilant. If you see a report that you think is inaccurate, contact the reporter or media organization responsible for it. And remember, just because it’s in print, it’s not necessarily accurate, even though some of us are still striving for “accuracy first.”