News analysis: Journalists shouldn’t speculate

· Sep 12, 2001 Tweet

Yesterday will live in infamy. It is Pearl Harbor. It is the JFK assassination of our time. Fellow UW students have friends, relatives and immediate family members who are still missing or dead. Everyone will remember where they were the moment they heard about the attacks.

However, even with the indescribable horror, a paper needs to be produced.
With newsrooms awash in shock, horror and confusion, the question had to be answered — how do we cover this?

At 8:48 EDT, with only a hint of the carnage unfolding, newsrooms around the world hurried to make coverage decisions. For example, NBC broadcasters Katie Couric and Matt Lauer joined Tom Brokaw on the Today show, which indeed lasted all day.

On morning newscasts such as these, speculation ran rampant. Networks and cable news shows knew about the troubling lack of information. However, they had to report something to the nation they knew was watching. Since death toll counts, total damage and other journalistic fodder would not be available for hours, days or even weeks, they had to find something else.

News managers sent reporters to the scene to get eyewitness accounts. Little did they know they would soon be involved in the story. With both WTC towers crumbling around them, initial sensory perceptions were misleading. An NBC reporter on the scene heard the second collapse and said something similar to, “… that could be another car bomb.”

The first car bomb he referred to, reportedly near the Pentagon, was later discredited. While he was careful to say, “could,” it was still an assumption.

Jim Naughton, president of Poynter Institute, a journalism institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., once said, “Make no assumptions. Report facts. Use dispassion, even in chronicling passionate events.” The quote appears at the top of a tip sheet released by Poynter for journalists covering the tragedy — a tip sheet some television reporters did not have time to evaluate.

The initial shock of a monstrous explosion would shake even the most hard-nosed reporter; but this reporter must have forgotten he held a national microphone. The American people, for the most part, trust the press to give them the truth. Even small offhand assumptions can hurt that trust.

Similarly, as speculation began on NBC, terrorist experts said only a small number of organizations had the means necessary to pull off such an act. Saudi Arabian exile Osama bin Laden’s name appeared on the list.

The Today Show named Bin Laden as a possible suspect and broadcast his not-quite-smiling mug across the airwaves. Although this was mere speculation, in many instances it was seen as fact by an American public eager to place blame.

UW-Madison journalism professor James Baughman watched the morning’s events unfold and said the speculation he saw was “careful speculation.”

“I thought the coverage was very attentive to what happened as opposed to who was responsible,” Baughman said. “We have to appreciate what these people are doing; they’re throwing this coverage together as it unfolds.”

Baughman said the reports he saw stressed they did not know who perpetrated these acts.

However, Baughman did say he thought the next couple of days could be “dangerous.”

“There are news programs that encourage this kind of careless, thoughtless speculation, and that’s when I worry,” Baughman said.

Baughman said he felt the Bin Laden connection was not necessarily careless speculation. He said Bin Laden’s history of anti-American polemic and possible connections with previous WTC bombings made network reporting of the Bin Laden connection reasonable.

“It’s not like we’re talking about Pope John Paul here,” Baughman said. “We’re talking about someone who has a record, just as the police often have their usual suspects ….”

“[Journalists] are forced to make a snap judgment, and [they’ve] been doing that for 150 years — and the thing is, they’re usually right or they’re close,” he said.

Regardless, as the investigation develops, both journalists and the American public need to be careful about what they convey or perceive as

fact. This attack stirs fury in every American, but investigators, the media and America need a calm head to review the facts.

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This article was published Sep 12, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Sep 12, 2001 at 12:00 am

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