Forty years ago I was working the police beat for a small daily newspaper in Manchester, Connecticut. One afternoon, a guy stole a car and was running from the police when he jumped a curb and ran over two young girls. One died and the other was severely injured but survived.
I grabbed my note pad and prepared to drive to the scene when the brash young managing editor, Steve, waved me off saying he’d cover the story. The next day, the article appeared on the front page of the paper, but there was a problem. Steve got the victims’ names mixed up. He reported the girl who died survived and vice versa, a fundamental error you learn never to commit in journalism 101 classes.
In his eagerness to write the story, Steve simply dashed off what he’d been told by the cops at the scene, hastily wrote it up and made the paper’s deadline, his egregious mistake no doubt causing further emotional harm to the families of the two girls.
Calls to the hospital and the coroner would have likely avoided this horrible embarrassment, but Steve didn’t bother. He wasn’t around after that.
This incident came to mind when I read the story about the popular actress Tanya Roberts, who became suddenly ill on Christmas Eve and was hospitalized. On January 3, online news outlets reported she had died. But on January 4, it was reported she was alive. Roberts did pass away, but not before a lot of media types had egg on their faces.
In their rush to post clickbait, a lot of reporters and editors didn’t trouble themselves to confirm the story. This should serve as a cautionary tale to those in journalism and public relations that accuracy means something, that we have an obligation to get it right.
What they used to say in newsrooms is, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. I don’t know, maybe they still say that.