Perhaps this headline strikes you as a little odd coming from someone who earns her bread as a journalist. But it’s precisely because I’m a journalist that I feel as I do. I’m always certain nothing good is coming when a friend or relative claims earnestly, “But I saw it on CNN!” As if that makes it true.
Sloppy journalism is an unfortunate norm, driven by a number of factors–the desire to be the first to get a news story on the air or on the web, the sheer insanity of deadlines that require one to report on complex topics with very little preparation or research beforehand, the dumbing down of the media world in an age when any Tom Fool can get on the Internet and claim fiction as fact…. The list goes on.
And while I’ve long been aware of just how unreliable most information the media puts out there is, every so often it hits home really hard. Earlier today, a public relations contact of mine gleefully pointed out to me that a recent article of mine had been quoted and used as a source in an article in TIME magazine. Now the uninitiated may all think TIME magazine like BBC News is above reproach. I beg to differ. The fact that they used something I wrote as a source is proof positive that they’re as guilty of sloppy journalism as anyone.
Because the article in question was one I wrote on a two-hour deadline, following a poor night of sleep, a major scrambling for interviews with experts, all while multi-tasking on two other projects at the same time. I’m not saying my article is inaccurate, but I will say I was mortified to see it used as a source by someone else. Suddenly, the work of a single, over-worked, tired out, frazzled journalist is becoming the law of the land. Do you see where I’m going with this?
On any given day, I conduct half a dozen or more interviews and write three to four articles, and that’s just between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Even the finest multi-tasker has statistics stacked against her. With that much content pouring out of my office each day, something somewhere is going to be wrong.
How often have I interviewed experts on breaking news stories only to have them rant about how that reporter they talked to at some competing news organization got it all wrong? It happens a lot, more than I care to think about. Many times when I’ve been asked to dig deeper into some amazing new story about how much healthier it is to eat a Big Mac than a boiled egg, I find it’s all hype. It’s not true. And there’s no story. But some reporter somewhere (either because his editor told him to or because he failed to do his homework) is out there claiming there is a story, and it’s all over the evening news, the Internet, and the front page of the next morning’s paper. These things frighten me.
They frighten me because, as a journalist, I know to take everything I hear, read, or see with a grain of salt. I know journalists are human, that they’re not only subject to make mistakes but that some of them will even make mistakes on purpose just for the sake of being the one to break a big story (whether it’s true or not). But does the average consumer of information know just how fallible journalists are? Or just how disturbingly sensationalist the media has become in the way it reports and presents the news? Probably not.
But you’ve been warned. The brave new world of journalism is not, in many instances, journalism at all. When news can be accessed 24/7, the news provider who gets the worm (i.e. the hits) is not the one who does the best reporting, but the one who writes the most intriguing headline (true or not) before someone else does.