Look, a lot of media outlets are just a little extra. They rush to publish, pile on the sensationalism, don’t bother with verification. They’re like that friend you wish you didn’t have who just can’t help blabbing everything they hear. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re also really, really loud. Ugh.
But hold up. Not all news outlets are like your friend, and just reporting on something they heard doesn’t mean they’re doing a bad job. Other times, reporting on something they heard is downright irresponsible. Let’s look at two case studies:
In August 2010 NBC Nightly News claimed that the Pentagon had announced the end of the war in Iraq. In its broadcast that night, reporter Richard Engel was there with what he said were the last combat troops in the country, who were at that very moment preparing to cross over into Kuwait. This would have amounted to the end of the war in Iraq. Huge story, right? Sure, if it were true. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
Editors at the New York Times got notice of the broadcast beforehand and feverishly tried to corroborate the claim with sources at the Pentagon. They didn’t want to be the only publication that missed such an important story. But they also couldn’t verify it, so they waited. They tuned in to NBC that night and watched the segment, and then went back to their offices scratching their heads, but not because they’d missed such a big story. One editor at the Times called the broadcast “hallucinatory,” and another mused, “Did the war end and I missed it?”
Regardless, since they were unable to verify the story, they decided to take their chances and did not run it in the morning paper. They made the right call. Other publications jumped on the NBC bandwagon, though, and prematurely reported something that had been announced but had not yet happened. The Times’ website may have missed out on some clicks the next day, but the paper retained its reputation for good journalism.
However, there are plenty of times when it’s perfectly appropriate and even necessary to report on a story that is still developing. This is what we mean by “provisional truth” — we report what we know at a given time, with the caveat that it is a developing situation.
In June 2009, for instance, the governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, went missing. There was a very small story buried deep in the paper announcing his sudden absenteeism. A day later, another headline — this one below the fold on the front page of the New York Times — announced that Sanford’s staff had reassured reporters that he was fine and just hiking the Appalachian Trail. A few days later, yet another headline — above the fold on the Times front page — announced what amounted a national bombshell: Sanford, a Republican with presidential aspirations, wasn’t out hiking at all; he was in Buenos Aires with his Argentinian lover. The scandal destroyed his political career (though now he’s back in the news as a potential GOP challenger to Trump in the 2020 primary).
This is a good example of a story that deserved to be reported with each new piece of information that came in: Oh no, the governor of South Carolina is missing! Wait a second, the governor has been found, and he’s just been out hiking — so weird!! Oh snap, the governor is having an affair in Buenos Aires!!!
In each case, the editors had to make a call on whether to report the story before they had all the facts. And in each case, they made the right call. If we consider what defines good journalism, we have to think about prominence and importance, but also unusualness and interest. The story of the war in Iraq ending was simply unverifiable, so the editors at the Times decided to wait until they had more solid information. On the other hand, it was definitely unusual that the governor of South Carolina went missing, and that deserved to be reported on. He had, after all, actually gone missing — he hadn’t been accounted for for several days. As the story unfolded, it only grew more interesting and more important. Its development riveted the nation, and to this day “hiking the Appalachian Trail” is used as a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for “having an affair.”