Worst, First: The Lesson We (Journos) Shouldn’t Miss In CNN, Fox Healthcare Ruling Blunder

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When CNN and Fox News screwed up this morning, I could almost hear the rule echoing through the lecture hall of my journalism school. (Tigers, was it Greeley who gave it to you?)

Better to be right and second than to be first and wrong.

Honestly, I’ve always thought this rule is trite and simplistic. It’s useful at an elementary level, for sure.

But it conflates two concepts that shouldn’t be mixed up: Being first with a story is one thing. Breaking the story is another. Confusing the two is dangerous, and this morning’s debacle confirms that for me completely. 

I don’t think the distinction is academic. “Breaking a story” involves active reporting — maybe exclusive reporting — and confirming facts with as many sources as necessary to feel comfortable disseminating the story. It’s textbook enterprise journalism. Making sure you tell your audience you’ve broken a story… before your competition… can be a game-changer and a career-maker. Maybe it’s more important to fellow journos than to our audience, but I’d like to think breaking a story lends credibility to your reporting. (Just ask Jim Shella.)

“Being first,” by contrast, is a passive act of reporting. You can “be first” when your poorly-crafted Tweet announces, “#BRKING: #sandusky glty — all cts.” Even if your competition has elegantly composed the message “BREAKING: Jury finds defendant Jerry Sandusky guilty on all counts,” it matters little whether your competition considers your Tweet actual English or not — at least if your editor asks, “Who was first?”

When all you care about is being first, all that matters is being first. But neither you nor your competition has done actual reporting. You were just… there. And you had an iPhone and Twitter. You used them. So did your competition. Being first in this situation lends neither of you credibility.

I don’t want to oversimplify this particular situation from the journalistic perspective. I know the SCOTUS press corps has had to learn to decipher the decisions they’re reading — that’s a form of reporting too. It’s more than just “witnessing something” and beating another reporter to send the right Tweet. Maybe this is a bad context for denouncing the failures of Twitter, cable news, and, hell, computer-age journalism in general.

But consider this: Whatever the AP says, everyone found out CNN and Fox News were first/wrong on SCOTUSblog. It’s a quasi-journalistic organization run by — other than one veteran, linchpin reporter — lawyers.

Lawyers?

Then of what value is a journalist?

The blood in our veins — the legacy of our profession — is rushing to the burning building before the other guy and telegraphing news to a world that truly didn’t know the building was burning… that the building was, in fact, burning.

But today, lawyers can do that. Soccer moms can do that. Auto mechanics can do that. You get it. Everyone has iPhones and Instagram. And they’ll probably “be first” before our news van rolls up.

Deeper than the aphorism ‘It’s better to be second and right,’ the lesson journalists need to take away from this is that people don’t want more yelling and telegraphing of information they don’t fully understand, simply for the sake of looking like you were first. They want to understand, they want context, and they certainly want less white noise.

This is white noise. And we’ve no use for it or the “journalism” behind it. And we need to decide journalism isn’t about “being first.” It’s about “breaking stories.” And if you’re not looking under rocks, you’re telling the world what’s new about what’s under the rock someone else turned over.

And hey… maybe I’m over-exaggerating the warts of my profession, but this really bugs me, and I’ve had a long day… Call me out in the comments section. I’m happy to discuss what I’ve penned here. Cheers, all.

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