The Newswatch Never Stops

PUBLISHED: January 21, 2011

When the New York Times reported erroneously via its website on Jan. 8 that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was dead, two things followed quickly. The first was a much-needed correction. The second was a renewed assertion among some print journalists that nonstop, 24/7 reporting—driven by the Internet—is perilous for news providers and puts responsible reporting in jeopardy.

The Washington Post suffered similar embarrassment last June when its website reported that John Wooden had died, although at the time the legendary UCLA basketball coach remained alive. In the aftermath, one senior editor at the Post said the intense pressure of a never-ending deadline was "like walking on egg shells."

All this fussing by newspaper folks as they wake up to demands of the digital era is rather quaint. The Internet has made real-time reporting more prevalent, but it certainly didn't invent it.

All-news radio began in the early 1960s at stations like WAVA in Washington, D.C., and WINS in New York, where it was refined to become the nonstop reporting format that remains popular today. In 1980, media visionary Ted Turner launched CNN, and nonstop television news has been a vital part of American journalism ever since.

As it happened, the incorrect report about Rep. Giffords was actually generated by broadcasters at CNN and NPR and was simply picked up by the Times. But while managers at CNN and NPR fumed over the mistaken facts—as they should—print veterans seemed equally determined to fault the process.

At first glance, the headline on the Times's own analysis of its coverage, "Time, the Enemy," made me wonder if the newspaper had some sort of quarrel with Time magazine. I never imagined that the "enemy" was time itself. Arthur Brisbane, the paper's public editor, wrote that elements of the Tucson coverage "illustrate how difficult it is in the current environment to be both timely and authoritative."

Yet that has always been a challenge for journalists. Even publishing once per day, the New York Times, like The Wall Street Journal and most other papers, must regularly print corrections. Mistakes happen. Would there be fewer errors if newspapers came out weekly? Perhaps, but the extension of that argument is that the best way to avoid mistakes would be not to publish at all.

Parkinson's Law states that, "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." Half a century ago the pioneers of all-news radio wondered about the converse: To what extent would the task of responsible reporting suffer as the time to accomplish it shrunk?

The answer lay in the definition of news itself. News is instantaneous. With the exception of the tree that falls in the empty forest, reporting begins at some level at the very moment that news happens. Professional journalists—whether print or electronic—are simply an extension of the process. All deadlines are artificial.

I recall going to work at the ABC Radio Network shortly after the company expanded from one newscast per hour to four; all of a sudden there was a deadline every 15 minutes. For many of us on the news desk this schedule was extremely difficult at first, because we felt that time had collapsed while the task of creating a finished five-minute newscast remained the same.

But colleagues working nearby at the all-news radio station were not similarly burdened. For them the pressure was removed, or at least sharply reduced, when there were no deadlines at all. On television, legendary coverage by Walter Cronkite and others during events such as the Kennedy assassination and the first moon walk—in the days before CNN and 24/7 TV news—demonstrated how deadlines could be measured by fact rather than time: Get it right and get it on. That was the schedule.

This is not to say that the power of the Internet to quickly disseminate errors is not cause for concern. Nor is the 24/7 news cycle an excuse for journalistic carelessness.

But the notion that nonstop news coverage is something new, some recent innovation developed as a product of the Internet and utilities such as Twitter, is bogus.

What newspaper editors could learn from broadcasters is that time need not be the enemy. It is integral to the very definition of news. Also, it waits for no journalist.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Index of Previous Columns