The 24-hour news cycle, especially in the age of Donald Trump, is truly insatiable. It’s in this kind of environment that news outlets and opinion-makers can jump to conclusions. In the race to make a splash on social media, reporters, editors, columnists and bloggers are bringing a greater sense of urgency to breaking news than ever before.
We saw two examples of it last week. The first was a sensational scoop from Buzzfeed News that, at that moment, provided a bombshell of a story about President Donald Trump allegedly ordering his former attorney to lie to Congress. Whether there was truth to the story remains to be seen, but a statement from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office about inaccurate information immediately cast doubt on the validity of the report.
The second story to stir up a frenzy across social media was about a group of high school students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who were in Washington, D.C., on Friday for the March for Life, which is billed as the world’s largest pro-life event.
While the students were waiting for their bus, they collided with other groups who also were on the National Mall to support their own beliefs. A video went viral showing the boys, many decked out in Make America Great Again hats, surrounding an older Native American man banging a drum, and news organizations jumped on the story as a perfect example of the polarized political landscape in the United States. Later reports, and a longer video of the same incident, added some important context and detail to the report that contradicted some, but not all, of the earlier coverage.
In a column in The New York Times, David Brooks wrote, “Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers.”
While much of this news was breaking, a group of us gathered last Friday at The American Hotel in Sag Harbor for Express Sessions, where we discussed how news, and specifically local news, is being handled in this changing world and what it means to be a media company in the 21st century. And while some in attendance asked for more news throughout the week, and quicker reports of breaking news, others actually begged for the news cycle to slow down, including Jim Rutenberg, the media columnist for The New York Times, who was on the panel.
News organizations are faced today with some tough decisions, relating both to their business model and how they intend to cover and break news. We often err on the side of caution and wait to publish until every angle has been explored. While chatter across Facebook or Twitter might shed light on a specific event, newspapers should be held to a higher standard and resist the temptation to report unsubstantiated news. We often have to wait longer than we’d like for our police departments to finish investigations, and it’s not always a given that our elected officials are even willing to talk.
In his column published over the weekend, Mr. Brooks said American culture is now “enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control,” adding that the Covington case was “such a blatant rush to judgment” that he hopes it becomes a turning point in how news organizations and the population in general behaves when reporting or discussing these stories with the potential to further polarize our populace.
In Sag Harbor, or Southampton or East Hampton, or any other small community across America, we have too much at stake as community news organizations to rush to judgement or to break polarizing news without being sure our research and sources are as sound as possible.
“I wouldn’t mind putting in a vote for a slower news cycle,” Mr. Rutenberg said during our conversation at the hotel on Friday. “I would love that. Maybe we can find a happy medium. We can write it better, we can think about it more.”