Fact checking used to be something that was done on a regular basis in the news business. There was even a commonly used editing icon–a red check mark in the margins of a draft copy of a story that signified one thing–CHECK YOUR FACTS. Seasoned and sage editors used to use it frequently with cub reporters because something just didn’t feel right.
But with the proliferation of the Internet and the demise of the Fourth Estate caused by an ever decreasing need to spend a buck a day for what you can find on the Net for free has come another consequence–the inaccuracy of things on the Internet because there are few left in the news rooms of America, really the world, to do what was once commonly done on a news story.
Pull up an On Demand clip from All The President’s Men, (that’s a movie about Woodward and Bernstein–they were investigative reporters who broke the Watergate Scandal during the presidency of Richard Nixon) and you’ll see references to the fact they couldn’t use information in their stories unless there were two verified, confirmed sources willing to go on the record and confirm something as fact.
Today, most publishers of America’s newspapers and TV networks rely on a handful of people to put together a product that is more entertaining than based on news or fact. The training is different than it was just 10, 15 or even 20 years ago.
The AP Stylebook, once revered as “The Bible” in journalism courses across the country is seemingly used as a last resort. The rules, (when I was in college, if you wrote a paper and made five AP style errors, no matter how good the writing was, the paper was given an F grade because of the five infractions) that once made news writing consistent and at a certain standard clearly are ignored or not known out of ignorance. (Think of how many of your local anchors say “Drunk” driving when it’s “DRUNKEN.”) (Think of how many times you’ve heard them talk about the flags having been lowered to half mast–when a mast is on a boat, and the actual order, which by US law can only come from the office of the president or the office of a state governor, and requires the US flag to be flown at half STAFF.)
But according to some, it’s okay to ignore those things because news isn’t about being right anymore, it’s about being entertaining. And what could be more enthralling and more encouraging to readers and viewers than a story about a college football player playing for his dying girlfriend who is more worried about him repeating a Gipper scene of “win one for me” than bothering to check to see if such a person even exists.
The ESPN anchor who just interviewed Notre Dame regular reporter Gene Wojciechowski, (By the way, Gene, if you read this and have a sister/cousin named Natalie who used to live at KI SAWYER AFB in Michigan in the early 1970s, but who changed her last name to Forester because it means the same thing, would you please ask her to contact me) said something to the effect, echoed by the anchor of, “Wow, we’re gonna have to stop taking people’s word from now on and ask some tougher questions.”
Well, YEAH. That’s what a reporter is supposed to do. Or was once supposed to do, when reporting news was about reporting news. That was before the day of “if it bleeds it leads.” That’s when it meant something to be in “Sweeps” and to have your investigative reporters out finding something truly scandalous about government workers who were fleecing taxpayers, or chemicals being put into children’s drinks that could be carcinogenic.
This is just one episode where the media failed to get the story right. What we won’t hear much of in the coming days is them being harsh or critical of themselves because there is not a more thin-skinned bunch than ones who sit around in the core of the nation’s news rooms. No, they will have nothing to learn here. It’ll more or less go down like this: Gene, SI, the South Bend paper, they all got it wrong, we just repeated what they said as though it were fact so we’re in the clear.
But as you think about how the press and the rest of us all got duped in the Manti Te’o hoax, start thinking about what all else you’ve seen on the national news lately that may not be right either. And that, my friends, can be a scary thought…..
And congrats to Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey. Nice work. Too bad there aren’t more like you left in mainstream news rooms across America.