For mainstream media, two essential characteristics for survival in this media world are urgency and verification. Get it first and get it right.
And yet, it’s so hard for some to do. And that failure is a big media killer.
Let’s go inside a story.
Last Sunday, Kristin Shotwell, a student of mine, wrote a blog post in which she described having her photos stolen and posted on Tinder under someone else’s name. I had my old editor’s hat on and knew it had all the makings of a good story: an innocent is harmed, and injustice had occurred and it involved new technology. I messaged friends at the News & Observer, WRAL and the Daily Tar Heel. Here’s what happened in order.
The Daily Tar Heel had seen Kristin’s blog and assigned a reporter to it on Sunday. The reporter contacted Kristin and me Sunday and set up interviews for Monday. Her story was published in the newspaper and website on Tuesday morning. It was accurate and informative.
WGHP, the Fox affiliate in High Point, wrote a story for its website on Monday. The story was based entirely on Kristin’s blog post. The interesting thing is that the writer made no obvious attempt to verify the story. No call to Kristin. No call to me. No apparent call to Tinder. No verification. Please note: Journalism’s “essence is the discipline of verification.”
The Daily Dot, a national website, picked up on the story from WGHP, contacted Kristin and asked for an interview. Kristin didn’t immediately get back with the reporter — she is a student with class obligations — and by the time she did, a few hours later, the reporter had already filed a story on the website and no longer wanted to interview Kristin. Again, no verification.
The first two people I contacted at WRAL didn’t respond to me. On Monday, I contacted a third who did. On Tuesday, a reporter set up an interview and the report aired 1t 11 Wednesday night.
I heard from the person I contacted at the News & Observer who said he would pass it to the appropriate person. I’ve been an editor. I knew what that meant. I never heard from anyone else there.
A reporter with NBCnews.com interviewed Kristin on Tuesday and published a story on Friday.
1. News judgment? It differs. It’s a story on a national news site, but not one for the News & Observer? OK, fair enough. One person’s story is another’s “I’m busy.”
2. Urgency? Wow. Hard to find. Social media spread it from North Carolina to Florida to California by Monday morning. Her blog had 16,000 visits by noon Monday. It made its first appearance on a website other than Kristin’s blog (and Facebook and Twitter) Monday afternoon on WGHP. The DTH published Tuesday. WRAL aired Wednesday. NBC on Friday. Social media didn’t just beat the mainstream news media, they sent newspapers and TV outside, made them cut a switch, bring it to them, and got a such beating in which they had to shout “May I have another?”
3. Verification? This, to me, is the most frightening. Urgency is important these days, but anyone can be fast, if they want to. Making sure you’re right, however, takes some effort. How WGHP and the Daily Dot knew that Kristin’s story wasn’t a fake is beyond me. Trust? Hope? Or just an attempt to get traffic, damn the accuracy of the report. (Because it got traffic; the WGHP story was shared nearly 400 times on Facebook.)
I hear people — particularly young people — say that they already know everything that is “in the news.” It is one reason they think that newspapers and television news is irrelevant to them. Everything they care about they have already seen on Facebook or Twitter. This story fascinated college students — and they didn’t need mainstream media to tell them about it, which is good, as mainstream media didn’t tell them about it.
To survive, newspapers and television stations must do better.