Charlie Mitchell: 'Best available version of the truth' is what media offers

April 29, 2013 10:11:45 AM

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OXFORD -- "They don't know what 'they're' talking about." 

 

"Why don't 'they' wait until they find out for sure?" 

 

"I can't stand the way 'they' do that." 

 

The "they" here is the news media. 

 

And to each complaint, I would add, "amen." 

 

And then I would say, "but ...." 

 

When a fertilizer factory blows up in Texas, when children are shot in a school, when bombs go off in Boston ... when any news "breaks," it has become common that among the initial flurry of facts people read and hear, many will simply be wrong. 

 

For the media, this is embarrassing. 

 

For the news consumer, it's frustrating. 

 

For the record, it's not going to get any better. 

 

We of the press are not going to "learn our lesson." Immediacy is too valuable; it ranks right up there and often trumps accuracy. 

 

The central component here is akin to the fog of war. The first telling of any story is rarely perfect. It takes a while for the smoke to clear, to sort things out, to determine what really happened as opposed to what appears to have happened. 

 

Don't believe me? Ask Mississippi troopers. Doubtless they have been dispatched to "18-wheeler load of chickens overturned, blocking the Interstate, multiple-vehicle accidents," yet when they arrive find a farmer on the side of the road with a flat tire and a crate of hens in the bed of his pickup. 

 

Think about your own experiences. 

 

Even "reliable information" can be wrong. 

 

My introduction to this was as a fledgling news reporter. 

 

A riverboat that doubled as a community theatre burned at its moorings. The troupe that used the stage was giving the mayor grief for not working fast enough to authorize repairs of the city-owned boat. 

 

In an interview, the mayor calmly and confidently told me he didn't understand why his critics were so animated because, after all, they had used the boat for free for years, hadn't paid a dime toward maintenance or upkeep. 

 

The next day's edition with my bylined story accurately quoting the mayor was on the front page. I was pretty proud of it. Then I glanced over toward my boss's desk. There stood the president of the theatre guild waving something in the editor's face. 

 

Yep. 

 

It was the troupe's rent receipts, signed by the city clerk. 

 

I kept my job, but am still not sure how. I had clearly failed in a journalist's duty to provide truthful information. Now many years later, I can assure you that wasn't the last time I relayed something that turned out to be flat-out wrong. For what it's worth, I'll probably do it again, too. 

 

What can't be forgiven, at least not as easily, is sloppy or indifferent reporting or pure speculation -- stringing together scattered facts into a template that suits a reporter's bias. 

 

But it's entirely likely that a lot of the bogus information we hear and read during crisis reporting comes from reliable sources. Those sources are just like the mayor who misinformed me. He thought he was speaking accurately. I figured he knew what he was talking about. 

 

Even the worst reporters rarely pull statements out of thin air. Someone has usually told them something, believing it to be correct. Later, at "oops time," the journalist, properly, takes the rap -- doesn't say, "but that's what I was told." 

 

Reporting news is and has always been incremental. Even back when there was one newspaper and one newscast every 24 hours, stories changed day-to-day. What was accurate one day might not be the next. Today, with reporters and sources tweeting every second, a lot more of what we see and hear changes as more becomes known and verified. 

 

We can be confident in the basics. There were bomb blasts in Boston near the marathon finish line. People were killed. People were hurt. Beyond that, what we get is not the pure, absolute, complete, final truth we seek. It is the best available version of the truth at the moment. 

 

As news consumers, we don't like this. It's frustrating. We condemn the media. "You can't believe anything they say" or "Why don't they hire people who know how to do their jobs?" 

 

If we reflect on those statements, fair-minded folks will be more understanding. 

 

The story keeps changing because, well, the story keeps changing. Ultimately, truth is truth. In news reporting, the path and process of finding and reporting it is rarely perfect.