Thursday, December 4, 2008

Breaking News

Jack Shafer has a piece at Slate about the struggle between accuracy and timeliness in reporting during events like the massacre in Mumbai. This is something I thought about quite a bit as I watched the events on television. Shafer mentions the complicity of all types of media, but I certainly notice most among the television outlets. It can be completely frustrating to watch any unfolding event because the first thing you hear almost guaranteed to be partially wrong if not completely wrong.

It seems though, that this is likely inevitable during a chaotic event such as the one in Mumbai. While it would be good for reporters to make more explicit the transient nature of their reports, there is very little doubt that no information at all would not be preferable.

What concerns me more is when this issue creeps into non-crisis reporting. For instance, NPR had a reporter out on Monday morning talking to retailers who suggested that sales had been pretty good. Kevin Drum pointed out that news outlets were reporting that the National Retail Federation was estimating a 20% increase in Black Friday sales over the weekend. Yet, it turns out that sales were actually up around 1% with many major retailers reporting decreases.

Perhaps news agencies feel the National Retail Federation estimates are an important source (though, as Drum points out, the methodology is very poor). But I suspect that what is more important is the fact that these numbers and the opinions of some people at the mall are simply important because they are the first information available. It seems to me that Black Friday sales are the kind of topic that could wait for substantive information instead of first available.

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