Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Ethical Media Marathon

The story that will dominate the news and other discussion in the media today, and maybe even all week, will obviously be the aftermath from the explosions in Boston.

All the discussions of potential deals on Capitol Hill, on immigration reform, on the budget battles, and of course, on the gun-crazy fanatics effectively using the Second Amendment to hold the rest of the nation hostage were temporarily put on hold. All of these fall by the wayside when our nation experiences an event like what happened yesterday on Boylston Street, at the end of the Boston Marathon.

If it seems like we're choosing our words carefully today, that's because we are, as the best members of media and journalism should always do - especially at a time like this.

To our great dismay, more than a few members of the media revealed themselves on Monday to be the "ratings first, facts last" failures of quality journalism that have sadly become all-too-common during crisis events. From The New York Post who drastically elevated the toll of the dead and made false claims about a Muslim suspect, to Fox contributor Eric Rush's tweet saying we should 'kill all Muslims' as a response to Boston, to Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post who called the explosions in Boston a "local crime story," there were plenty of embarrassments to our profession on display on Monday.

There were also some shining examples in the media of worthy of praise.

One in particular we want to single out is Ana Marie Cox, a journalist who is - like the rest of our staff - originally from Lincoln, Nebraska. Ana Marie did exactly the right thing during the crisis. She sifted through the information, tweeted and posted judiciously, and passed along plenty of helpful information. When she reposted something less than excellent, she made her mistake clear, and retracted that post - but in general, Ana Marie exemplified what many in our profession who weren't on immediate deadline should have been doing on Monday.

One of the key actions Ana Marie took as the chaos unfolded was simple and effective: Repeatedly reminding other members of the media, through Twitter, with her own messages and retweets of others,  to be responsible, ethical, and accurate in their reporting. Other members of the media who followed Ana Marie's lead include Greg Sargent, Adam Serwer, James Downie, Benjy Sarlin, and even one of our own staff members. The repeated reminders to other members of the media to check their sources, to make sure they weren't communicating rumors, and to check and recheck what they were reporting was key, in our opinion, in helping to reign in the cacophony of rumors, lies, and misinformation.

All of the responsible journalism on Monday encompasses a set of actions those of us who were part of it should be proud of. Like a marathon runner's past miles though, those actions are all behind us.

Today, many of our colleagues in the media will be attempting to run the next leg of their career-long race. They will attempt to fill the voracious news hunger of the American populace, desperate to know what exactly happened in Boston, why it happened, and who is responsible. There will be far too much speculation, and there will be far too many versions of the same questions repeated in pointless attempts to answer those queries for which no one yet has any answers.

We won't be asking those kinds of questions today - and the best members of our profession won't be asking those questions either.

What we will be doing is trying to pick up our pace again, to get back to running our own professional, lifelong marathon - to do justice to our craft in words and images, to spur others to do their best, and to shame the worst of our colleagues to change their unprofessional ways.

There are other stories that need covering too, that are still waiting for all of us today. Stories on immigration, on Congress slipping repeals by while the nation looked elsewhere, on the battle for gun reform, and on many other topics, still need telling on the long journey ahead.

The key to winning this race isn't about getting to a story first. It's about navigating the terrain of the story properly, and better than anyone else - another lesson too many in the media have yet to learn from marathon runners.