No, in Breaking News, the Media Shouldn’t Wait Until It Has ‘All the Facts’
It’s a familiar rant when it comes to breaking news: people complain as a developing story changes, that the media should ‘wait until it has all the facts.’
From time to time, it seems people are just looking for something to complain about. When it comes to the news media, I’m sure it’s no surprise that there are people eager to find something to pounce on.
One of the “easier” targets is coverage of breaking news. As most people who take even a moment to think about it should be able to understand, when a story is happening right at that moment, information is fluid. Some of the first pieces of information that come in, even from otherwise-reliable sources, is subject to change as more information comes in.
The common response to this is that the media should just wait until it has “all the facts” before reporting anything.
But this isn’t really what anyone who makes that proclamation actually believes. And it certainly isn’t what they actually want.
It happens every day: someone will email or call the newsroom and ask, “What’s happening at [Location]? I just saw a dozen police cars go flying by!” Why would these people even ask if the believe nothing should be reported until all the facts are known? If it’s a story that has only recently begun — evident from police rushing to some scene — why would they expect us to tell them anything?
Breaking news can be a nightmare when it comes to getting accurate information in a timely manner.
Dan Rather once said that when breaking news happens, some of the initial reports are going to turn out to be incorrect. That’s because the information comes from a variety of sources, including eyewitnesses, that ends up being wrong, too.
Take November 22, 1963, for example. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally, there were all sorts of conflicting reports. Early in the coverage, it was reported that First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Texas First Lady Nellie Connally had also been wounded. It had been reported that a Secret Service agent had been killed. None of that was true, but it came from what was regarded as reliable sources or was reported as “unconfirmed,” which means that it may or may not be accurate, but it’s what reporters at the scene are being told.
That’s not an argument that nothing should have been reported about a shooting attempt until after Kennedy died. And given the uncertainty that still remains about exactly what happened in Dealy Plaza that day, if we were waiting for a definitive account that ruled out any speculation at all, perhaps the death of JFK might not have been reported even 53 years later.
Take March 30, 1981, the day on which President Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. It wasn’t a great morning for ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds, who became visibly angry on camera when, after reporting several times that Reagan had been uninjured, news began to come in that Reagan had actually been wounded. Watch beginning at about 4:10 in this clip:
Radio traffic from the Secret Service indicated that the president, whose codename was “Rawhide,” was okay and they were headed back to the White House.
Of course, moments after the shooting, not even Reagan himself knew he had been hit by a bullet. When he first coughed up blood in the limousine which was transporting him back to the White House, he told his Secret Service agent he might have cracked one of Reagan’s ribs when the agent pushed Reagan into the car. But the agent saw the blood was frothy, a sign a lung may have collapsed, and ordered the car taken to George Washington University Hospital.
Only after doctors examined Reagan did they find an actual gunshot wound.
Would the people who insist the media should wait until it had “all the facts” not even report that shots had been fired to begin with? Of course not.
Recently, I saw some friends of mine complaining about the media’s reporting of an accident that involved a fatality. They were demanding to know why the news didn’t report the names of the other parties involved. One of them seemed to suggest who knew already exactly who was involved, but in his rant on social media about the news report not telling the “whole story,” he conveniently didn’t bother to name the names, either.
Very often, in such cases, if the media doesn’t report such details, it’s because they simply don’t know them. Law enforcement often doesn’t give names of victims in an accident unless the victims wind up being charged with a crime. Other times, media outlets who receive police incident reports may well have the names, but elect not to report victims who aren’t presumably the cause of such incidents.
Think about it a second: if your home were burglarized, would you want the media reporting your name? Wouldn’t you have been through enough?
Yes, breaking news coverage will occasionally have incorrect information, no matter how hard reporters work to verify their information. That’s because the trusted sources themselves are sometimes given false information.
That doesn’t mean you ignore the story. That’s not how it works. That’s not even how it’s supposed to work.