Breaking the News on Tragedies
On Sunday, January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, the basketball legend and his 13-year-old daughter were two victims among many of a horrific helicopter crash that shocked the world. There were articles providing information immediately after the crash took place. Many of the reports were ill-timed and contained information that was incomplete, and even inaccurate, concerning the story that took place. In the early hours of the tragedy, TMZ was one of the first to report. The New York Times followed suit with a tweet about the ongoing investigations but later took down any coverage on Kobe Bryant. This would result in them being informed even before the Bryant family; this too was the case for the rest of the victims’ families. However, that does not mean that they had the complete information to be reporting on it. In actuality, the report from TMZ did not include all the names of the victims of this incident. This would be the beginning of a series of reports from multiple news organizations that would be mistaken
However, this type of reporting is not really new in the journalism world. This has been happening for a while as tragedies happened. This traces back to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings on December 14, 2012. There were a series of mistakes, such as Fox News identifying the name of the shooter, only for it to be completely incorrect. Following reports on MSNBC about the events hours from the shooting, that was gravely mistaken. According to David Folkenflik from NPR’s Coverage Rapid, And Often Wrong, In Tragedy’s Early Hours article, “Margaret Sullivan, argues in a blog post containing a staggering rundown of the paper’s errors that its journalistic missteps were driven by the push to meet the speed of expected social media platforms”.
In the age of instantaneous media, there is bound for mistakes. The pressure on journalists is immense for them to get the stories right and get them in as soon as possible. This creates issues in correct reporting and some journalistic principles, such as ethics, get distorted in the pursuit of getting stories out for the public to consume just as soon as the tragedy has occurred.
Consumption is the thing that has changed, not the coverage of stories. NPR’s Folkenflik mentions that “it took writer Dave Cullen a decade to report and write an authoritative account of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. He said the media had established to its own satisfaction as exactly why the teens turned into killers within just a few days. He argued [that] it is unfair to expect precision from the media immediately after a crisis starts, but that journalists must move with lightning speed to correct themselves”. The public expects the media to report everything as it happens in the midst of tragedies with accuracy due to their need for consistency and perpetual news influx in their everyday lives. They expect the most when most times that comes with the cost of error.
So, in stories written on tragedies, such as the shootings at Columbine High School, or even the Kobe Bryant helicopter accident, we must remember one thing: in the middle of a crisis, the media is writing in drafts. The stories are often incomplete and need rewriting. This is due to not having all the details at once in the midst of a crisis happening. The public needs to keep that in mind as they consume today’s news.
Sara Mahgoub is a senior majoring in early grades preparation and minoring in journalism. SM863178@wcupa.edu