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Sometimes it's better to be right than first

July 1, 2012
By CRAIG HOWELL , Weirton Daily Times

Going through my college journalism classes, and even my high school history classes, I heard about the infamous "Dewey defeats Truman" incident of 1948.

The staff of the Chicago Daily Tribune, looking at election returns and trying to get their edition out on time, boldly proclaimed that Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry S. Truman for that year's presidential election. They did so even though the election results were not complete and the race had started to get closer.

When the staff realized Truman was going to win, they rushed out to collect as many copies as possible, but could not get them all which eventually led to the famous photo of Truman standing at the back of a train holding up a copy of the newspaper.

We briefly had our own "Dewey defeats Truman" moment this past week upon the release of the Supreme Court decision on the national healthcare laws.

Many Americans were focused on their televisions, smart phones and Internet connections Thursday morning, waiting for the decision.

Before the decision was even officially announced, murmurs began spreading through the crowd that the law had been overturned. Cheers were raised among one group and jeers in another.

Some of the cable news networks heard this and broke in with the news. Except, it wasn't the real decision and the confusion began.

Those who had announced the overturning, found themselves scrambling to remove all traces of the innacuracy.

Unlike back in 1948; however, there was no way to remove all traces of this bad information.

In the age of a 24-hour news cycle, online resources and social networking, word can spread to thousands in a matter of seconds, and millions in a matter of minutes.

Now, as we all know the Supreme Court upheld the law, leaving mixed feelings depending on what side you stand on, and leaving a few journalists out there with some egg on their face.

News runs at a much faster rate these days than ever before. Information that could have taken weeks to spread 200 years ago, or days even 50 years ago can now be found making its way around the world in a matter of seconds.

It makes it that much more important to make sure we, as journalists, do as much as we can to guarantee we have accurate information before we run with it.

One of the lessons in early journalism classes is to make sure you have a reliable source for your information before you publish your report.

If you can get two or more sources to verify that information, it's even better.

But that's not always possible when you have newspapers, television stations, radio stations and websites competing against not only those in the same medium, but with everyone else as well.

Even bloggers have gotten into the act in recent years, with many simply relying on rumors and gossip instead of verified fact.

They post it on their website, and, of course, if it's on the Internet it must be true!

We are constantly rushing around, trying to get the information out there to our customers as quickly as possible, while also beating out the competition.

Many newspapers, at least those who are still putting out physical, printed editions, will post portions of breaking news articles on their websites prior to their next scheduled publication. That way, readers don't have to wait at a time when many who are actually interested in the news seem to want to have it at their fingertips within a matter of moments after the event has taken place.

The use of social media throws another wrench into the system, as reporters are taking photos or blasting out information as news is still breaking.

Even non-reporters might hear a whisper of something and post it on Facebook or Twitter. Before you know it, it cascades into an overblown, technological version of the old "telephone" game, where you would whisper one thing to the person next to you, and by the time it got back around what you were told is completely different.

Unfortunately, with the speed of getting the information out there, mistakes are made.

There is definitely a balance to strike when it comes to reporting with speed and accuracy. It's difficult, but not impossible to find.

Second place may be considered the first loser, as Dale Earnhardt once proclaimed, but as Donald Rumsfeld said, "A lack of precision is dangerous when the margin of error is small."

(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at chowell@weirtondailytimes.com or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)

 
 

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