Beyond the customary outrage expressed whenever bullets harm young people lies another disturbing aspect of the April 24 shootings at the National Zoo. The actions of the news media while covering the story were simply irresponsible.
At first glance, one can almost excuse television reporters for jumbling the facts, for breathlessly passing on the latest rumors emanating from those closely associated with developing events. Television news is a war fought in real time with reporters cast as foot soldiers competing with each other for information. No one has time to check the facts because every second counts. That excuse is still flimsy at best and does not serve the public well.
However, newspaper reporters and editors do have ample time to verify their facts because of the delay between events and publication. Even The Washington Post did not do this simple, routine exercise. The newspaper reported that one of the children was brain dead on life-support so that his organs could be donated. The police source was wrong; the child is alive, albeit in critical condition.
Erroneous information touted as fact can be very dangerous and profoundly hurtful. Imagine the anguish felt by relatives of children visiting the Zoo when they switched on the evening news or read the newspaper headlines the next morning to discover reports of dead children. No one died. But when the only information to which these parents have access is wrong, they have no way of knowing the truth. The news media supposedly stand as the guardian of that truth, the one forum where the information presented is guaranteed to be correct. The television producers and newspaper editors failed in their mission to present the events of the day without passion or prejudice, to bring the story home fairly and completely.
This incident is indicative of an alarming trend. The focus in today’s news market is on speed, beating the other network or paper even at the expense of the truth. Journalism is certainly a business, but providing false information to viewers and readers is bad business.