Tuesday, July 13, 2010

History's rough draft

American novelist George Helgesen Fitch once wrote that a reporter’s job is to prepare the “first draft of history every day.”

Nowadays, that process is becoming more and more like a rough draft. Much information gets sent into the ether of the World Wide Web without first being subjected to any sort of vetting for accuracy, perspective, fairness or even a modicum of detail.

Much to their credit, many local law enforcement agencies are providing updates on crime and vehicular accidents throughout the day via e-mail. All news organizations receive these updates, and many simply report them as they are received.

What could be wrong with that? Actually, a lot.

First, through no fault of the law enforcement agency, initial reports of this sort are, at best, incomplete. Sometimes they appear to be a larger or smaller story than they eventually turn out to be. Information is sketchy, often not subjected to verification procedures that will be applied later.

There’s one sort of law enforcement release that we find particularly difficult to handle -- adult missing persons when there is no sign of foul play. These cases are nearly always resolved within 24 hours; often, sadly, when the body of a suicide victim is found.

It is the Post Register’s general policy not to publish news about suicides, except in rare circumstances. So, we judge each missing person case on its own merits and make our best judgment.

Meanwhile, however, many other news organizations publish via web site or e-mail every update coming out of every local law enforcement agency or the basic material found in a morning check of police reports. These reports are notorious for containing all sorts of information that might later be found to be untrue or, at least incomplete -- it’s simply the nature of this sort of report.

We learned long ago to apply some simple standards of reporting to this sort of information instead of simply putting it out as written. This presents some interesting challenges to the Post Register. More often than not, our own news stories are anything but definitive -- we understand that each day’s print and online editions are truly a “rough draft” of history, and that we’re going to follow up to continue connecting the dots. We’re also a little more selective in which releases from law enforcement we put out there without first doing a little additional reporting.

There’s no simple formula, but just understanding that journalists have a role to play even in reporting the seemingly simplest information is an important starting point. Being first is important, but real journalism demands just a little more than simply being the medium through which raw information travels.

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