July 7th 2015
American newspapers were once famous for their ‘fact checkers’.
From a journalist’s point of view, their sole role in life was to delay running a story while seemingly totally irrelevant parts of it were verified. Newsrooms were once awash with requests from fact checkers along the lines of ‘Does Queen Elizabeth really live in Buckingham Palace? Can we prove that?’
This dedication for total accuracy was echoed by the global head of Associated Press who, on my first day at the job 25 years ago, delivered a memorable speech about the importance of being first to report a story – but the greater need for accuracy.
When I began in newsrooms, CNN was a respected operation. Experienced journalists wanted to work there, drawn to the quality of the stories and its ability to broadcast live events from around the world.
However the years haven’t been kind to CNN and further proof in its decline – and the accompanying general trend in journalism standards – was made abundantly clear two weeks ago when CNN broke into its broadcast to dramatically announce that an ISIS flag had been spotted at London’s annual gay rights rally.
“If you look at the flag closely, it’s clearly not Arabic,” said reporter Lucy Pawle. “In fact, it looks like it could be gobbledegook. But it’s very distinctively the ISIS flag.”
At least they got this right – it definitely wasn’t Arabic!
CNN also spoke to a respected terrorism expert to try to work out why ISIS would be marching in the UK’s highest profile gay event.
Comically, the supposed ISIS flag was in fact a parody, bearing outlined images of sex toys in place of Arabic script. CNN dedicated an excruciating six and a half minutes – conducted with an air of total seriousness and extreme gravity – to the subject. The segment analysed the flag in great depth, repeatedly zooming in on the man waving it.
With social media lampooning the story, CNN finally took down the video from the Internet later in the day. But outside of this CNN refuses to address the matter, declining to issue a statement or do interviews on the fiasco. It’s highly tempting to laugh off the whole matter — which is what CNN appears to be doing.
But it raises the question why no one in the CNN newsroom questioned the sheer implausibility of the story. Substantial damage has been inflicted upon both the broadcaster and the reporter involved – and to the reputation of journalism in general.
The insatiable appetite of rolling news means the beast must be fed. Modern newsrooms tend to be populated by inexperienced but well-intentioned journalists. Over the last few years cost cutting has seen a generation of older, wiser and more cautious journalists – the kind that would’ve questioned the CNN story – made redundant.
CNN isn’t the only media organisation to make such a glaring error – last year one of Australia’s leading newspapers made the expensive mistake of splashing the wrong photograph of a terror suspect on its front page.
It came about because the Sydney Morning Herald had laid off the majority of its seasoned, old hands. On the day in question a keen, but inexperienced, journalist lifted the wrong photo off a Facebook page – and no-one was on hand to check the facts.
And to paraphrase the words that the AP boss Lou Boccardi said a quarter of a century ago – ‘be first with the story, but make sure it’s right’.