GRIZ GRIT: Getting it Wrong

By Beacon Staff

Recent realignment action by major football conferences surely will be recognized years from now as historic, but the surprising thing to me about the whole weeks-long affair was the amount of wild speculation and misinformation that floated from supposedly, albeit not-so-much, reliable sources.

I suppose it made for good water cooler fodder for readers, listeners and viewers, but for someone who still works in the business, it causes me to be even more concerned about the immediate information age and the requisite powers that demand spewing information seemingly without concern about the nature of the attribution.

Legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite had it right when he said: “Get it first, but get it right.” Interestingly, Cronkite seldom revealed he had customized the original slogan of the International News Service, the predecessor of United Press International – “Get it first, but first get it right.”

I don’t care what any journalist tells you, but there is a surge of enthusiasm when you put a great story out there for the first time. In fact, I don’t mind telling you that almost four decades after I first saw my byline in the Spokesman-Review I still enjoy seeing my name on the top of my work. Maybe if that doesn’t happen for other journalists, they’re toiling in the wrong profession.

But there is nothing more disconcerting, and embarrassing for that matter, for a reporter than to make a mistake and have it published under your byline.

Some would say it happens more on deadline – when by that last read you don’t trip over the oblivious mistake – but for me it always happens when I take something for granted, incorrectly believing I know how a word is spelled or what title a man holds or, in the case of a story a few weeks ago, the spelling of a school.

In fact, thanks to the reader who pointed out from a recent story it’s Stony Brook University of the Big South Conference, not Stoneybrook, but I digress.

During my Missoulian career, for example, I was writing 300 to 400 stories a year, and, believe me, I embarrassingly led the newsroom in errors and after writing three books that I believed were error-free, then pointedly being proved later they were not, I realize I am by no means error free – at least in my writing.

My concern is with the increasing number of journalists – and, believe me, I use that term loosely here – who use myriad of communicative devices to instantly deluge the medium basically with what someone heard over the aforementioned water cooler without a thought to verify anything or even be concerned about their incorrectness when minutes later it is proven wrong.

The even bigger problem is the person who then picks up that incorrect or unverified information and further passes it along to the masses as truth.

Now don’t get me wrong, camera phone video and news tips can be valuable stuff in my profession and there’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time. With the demise of investigative reporting because of cutbacks in the news business, someone has to keep watching and confidential sources and whistleblowers are necessary.

I’ve just grown tired of the unidentified source close to the (insert situation here) who endlessly is quoted about an impending action when he got the information while filling, not standing and talking by the water cooler. How many of those surfaced during the latest college football debacle?

Identifiable attribution is such a far better way to proceed.