The Times West Virginian

April 13, 2014

COLUMN: ‘Instant’ news not always reliable

By Misty Poe
Times West Virginian

— Instant.

That little word has a pretty big meaning. With origins that date back to the 15th century, it means urgent, current, immediate.

But think about how that word has developed over the past few decades.

Instant pudding. Instead of slaving over a hot stove for a few minutes, you can now pour cold milk and with a bit of stirring, instant pudding!

Instant tan. No time to sit at the beach or the pool to get that bronzed look? Now you can instantly “tan” by spraying your body with a can, using a lotion or standing in a booth. Voilà!

Instant messaging. Suddenly you could send a message to a friend over the Internet that would instantly pop up in a chat window. It was an instant success, as it cut down the wasted seconds it took to wait for an email.

We want things to happen instantly. Instant credit! Instant results! Instant quote! Why wouldn’t we want things immediately?

Well, there’s a lot behind the saying “good things come to those who wait.” Why? Because no matter how hard you try, instant pudding just doesn’t taste as good as homemade. That instant credit comes with a huge annual percentage rate. Instant results are usually superficial and don’t really get to the root of the reason why you needed the product to begin with.

Instant news isn’t all it’s crack up to be, either.

There’s a news-gathering process that takes place when you tackle every story, whether it be a breaking news event or an in-depth piece. You collect as much information as possible. You check to make sure that information is accurate. You confirm the information from sources of authority on the issue.

I’m an old newshound. I cut my teeth in journalism before smartphones and digital cameras and wide use of the Internet. I didn’t even have a work email address for several years here at the Times West Virginian. Back then, at the turn of the century if you can believe it, I could not imagine a time where I could be on the scene of a developing news story and update readers from a “computer” I could carry around in my pocket. Who could have known that with that smartphone, I could take pictures, video, write the story, post it to the website (I’m pretty sure we didn’t have one back then) and then alert readers on multiple social media sites?

All of that exists now. We have the power to do all those things. But that doesn’t mean the news process should be any different than it was back at the turn of the century when readers got the news of the day at 6 a.m. We have to maintain our standards of journalism integrity no matter how “instant” the news is.

I have spent entire shifts dialing numbers until my fingers hurt, wincing at the words “no comment,” being transferred to voice mail to leave messages I was sure would never be returned, and trying to find a different approach after hitting about 10 brick walls while trying to bring a story to our readers. Sometimes those shifts end with six frustratingly short paragraphs of just not enough information.

There are things we know. There are things people have told us. There are things we suspect. But without hard evidence — a confirmation, an official statement, an on-the-record interview, a document, an attribution — we cannot present it to our readers as “news.” Those are rumors. It’s gossip. It’s meaningless without something to back up the information.

Those brick walls we hit aren’t always built intentionally. Officials aren’t always hiding behind secretaries to avoid our calls. Sometimes a personnel issue legally prevents them from being able to comment on a situation. Law enforcement officials often can’t release all information about crimes because it might impede an investigation or damage the possibility of a successful prosecution of an accused person.

And when something involves a juvenile, like an expulsion from the school system, a crime or an accident, there are legal barriers in place to protect that minor child from being identified in any way.

In this “instant” age, many believe that what they read on a social media site is presented with as much credibility as a news report. It just isn’t. And sometimes instant news from news sources isn’t reliable, either. I think back to the heartbreak of the Sago Mine Disaster, when half the newspapers and television stations across the country ended their news days with 12 out of 13 miners found alive. It was a miscommunication that started at 11:50 p.m., just enough time to rework front pages to spread the joyous news of the miracle at Sago. It was the Mountain and Pacific time zone news organizations that had the real story that was cleared up within three hours. The 12 had perished and only one miner lived, the exact opposite of what was reported. That was confirmed by official sources by 2:45 a.m.

Hope was instantly dashed.

This winter, we waited on pins and needles for a confirmation from sheriff’s deputies that two missing men and a boy were found safe and alive in Randolph County. We’d seen posts on three social media sites celebrating the fact that they were found alive and would be coming home. But our hands were tied. We could not present that, not even the rumors or the whispers of that, and risk the mistake of allowing a miscommunication or a misunderstanding to be construed as news.

We work to bring you the story as soon as we possibly can, but we want it to be as accurate as possible. We know that many things fly around the walls of social media, and sometimes those things are true. Many times they are not. We could fill our wall and your newsfeed full of stuff we “know.” But one mistake chips away at the integrity of this newspaper as the source for news in Marion County. And that’s not something we’re willing to risk.

Misty Poe is the managing editor of the Times West Virginian and can be reached by email at mpoe@timeswv.com, on Twitter @MistyPoeTWV or by phone at 304-367-2523.