Listeners often say all the right things when it comes to offering tips for how journalists should do their jobs — Don’t worry about getting it fast, just get it right.
There’s just one problem with that very sound piece of advice; in 2016, listeners won’t let newsrooms do that.
In her excellent column today, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen takes on the frustration of listeners in the aftermath of last Sunday morning’s shootings at a gay bar in Orlando.
“Even as reporters were still trying to get basic facts from authorities and witnesses, such as how many people were killed, my office was receiving emails from listeners who wanted NPR to be clear whether it was a homophobic attack, ISIS-inspired terrorism or a direct result of U.S. gun access policies,” she writes.
Of course they do. The journalists do, too.
The problem is it’s absurd in a breaking news situation that it would be possible to sort out such things in a matter of hours.
This pressure is a direct result of the lightning speed with which news now travels, at least for those on social media. It is exacerbated by the punditry that cable news networks use to fill their many hours, and the highly politicized atmosphere fostered by the presidential campaign. The problem, of course, is that all the information necessary to put any event such as this in context is not available in the immediate aftermath, and sometimes not for days. Four days later, a full profile has still not emerged of what drove the shooter to kill 49 in the Pulse nightclub. It may likely be a combination of factors. For more thoughts on this pressure, including those of NPR’s senior vice president of news, Michael Oreskes, see this CJR.org article and a column by Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post.
My office is still receiving emails from listeners who believe NPR deliberately chose to underplay the fact that the attacks took place in a gay nightclub, and continues to do so. Mark Memmott, NPR’s standards and practices editor, told me that “like in the early hours of any event, it took awhile to figure out what to say,” as reporters scrambled to confirm numerous details about what happened. He added, “I don’t think it can be said in our coverage that we were not very clear about the nightclub.” I agree.
In her weekly mailbag, Jensen also takes on the question of naming the shooter, which I talked about in this space earlier, so I won’t bother with it again here.
Related: The astounding journalism in Orlando (NewsCut)