For breaking news, newspapers must label information accordingly

Saturday, April 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:28 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008
Greg Bowers is the Missourian's Sports section editor.

Wednesday afternoon, the word came: shooting reported at Reactor Field on MU.

In the context of Monday’s killings at Virginia Tech, the report reverberated. Television stations ran with the story. At the Missourian, the news was quickly online.

Problem was, it wasn’t true.

News cycles now happen at light speed and tomorrow morning, when my newspaper lands reliably on my driveway, seems far away.

Newspapers are trying to figure out how to translate their news gathering to the World Wide Web. And coping, unfortunately, has led to mistakes like Wednesday’s “shooting at Reactor Field.”

A newsroom can be an exciting place. Phones ring. A reporter runs into the room and yells the “news” to his or her editor. A second reporter runs in and adds to the story. Or — and this is important — the second reporter runs in and changes the story.

In the past, newsrooms have had the luxury of waiting it out. Now, the Web beckons, text-casting beckons. We can’t wait.

Is there value in quickly reporting “shooting at Reactor Field”? Perhaps. Had the report of the early-morning killings at Virginia Tech gotten out quickly, perhaps lives would’ve been saved. And Wednesday, worried parents who got cell phone messages that their kids’ schools were locked down wanted to know the reason why.

Is there value in getting it right? Absolutely. Walter Williams, who founded the Missouri School of Journalism 99 years ago, wrote, “I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.”

But Walter Williams didn’t know about the Internet.

As Wednesday ticked away, the story developed. There had been a shooting, but not at Reactor Field. The shooting happened south of town, and the victim’s friends attempted to transport him to the hospital. Driving erratically, they were stopped by a policeman near Reactor Field.

There was no threat to the students on campus. Our story was updated online. Mothers breathed easier.

The next morning, the print Missourian landed, reliably, on my driveway.

But in the newsroom, we’re left with the problem. And some not-so-clean feelings.

When online readers become privy to a “developing story” or a story “still being reported,” how should we let them know? When online readers essentially can “see” into the newsroom and “hear” our conversations, how should we let them know that the early, incomplete versions of news can be wrong?

The answer could lie in transparency. The answer could lie in labeling. And admitting when you’re wrong.

Let the words out on the Web site, but label them.

Story in progress: “Reports of shooting at Reactor Field, the Missourian is dispatching reporters to the site...”

Then, when the journalism finally arrives, use it.

“Earlier reports of shooting at Reactor Field were wrong. Here’s what happened...”

Is that better? We’re not sure.

But by labeling breaking news this way, the words would be one important thing, something that Walter Williams would appreciate.

They would be true.

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