Thirteen years ago I was in Dallas talking to the online editor (a new concept then) of a newspaper I once worked for, The Dallas Morning News. The trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was starting up in Denver, and we were discussing how the story was being covered in the press.
The Morning News had just come under fire for releasing details of a private conversation McVeigh had with his attorney wherein McVeigh said he had chosen the time of day (9:01 on April 19, 1995) for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building to “increase the body count.”
The story went national and appeared shortly before the jury in the federal case was to be selected. The fact the details were published immediately in the paper’s online edition had made it more troubling.
The computer disk containing the McVeigh interview was leaked to the Morning News by a member of the defnese team who said he didn’t know the interview was on it. He said he was providing the disk to the paper because of some FBI records it contained.
As for McVeigh, he now told his lawyer he now had zero chance of getting any sympathetic jurors or getting favorable treatment from the judge, since the story had gone national with the Dallas paper’s Web edition.
While none of the Denver jurors would have had reason to see the print edition of the Dallas newspaper, they did have ready access to the online edition and McVeigh’s incendiary comment.
A hazard of the job
My editor friend told me that was one of the hazards of his job with the online edition: The time cushion between the actual event being covered and its publication was gone. It had disappeared in the expectation that the story would go immediately into the Web edition. There was no time for
reflection about its possible result in swaying potential jurors in a case where the whole trial had been moved out of state to minimize any influence.
The concept of reporting that is done with such blazing speed is what I referred to first in the mid-1990s as Turbonews. It’s even faster today.
Admittedly, it is impossible to sympathize with Timothy McVeigh. I covered the Oklahoma City bombing myself as a reporter and was outraged by the devastation wrought by this man who was ultimately convicted and executed.
But, like my editor friend in Dallas, I do worry about the disappearing cushion of time that reporters now face in such potential influential stories as the leaked McVeigh interview. He had not yet been tried when this story came out in the Dallas paper. The appearance of the story could have delayed the trial or even possibly resulted in a defense motion to dismiss for prejudicial pre-trial publicity.
In this case, it is hard to envision the latter happening but — in a less emotionally charged case — it might have.
I also worry about how stories meant for local audiences now automatically become national stories because of the Web. That is especially so when a local story can have a troublesome effect on an event happening in another part of the country.
Pressure of competition
A related worry is an editor’s rush to judgement not just because of the speed that Web journalism publication mandates, but because of pressure to publish now because of a related story another newspaper may be publishing clear across the country.
While this concern is especially acute these days because everyone has access to online editions of newspapers, the problem even pre-dates the creation of the Web.
For example, in 1979, an editor for the Montana newspaper, The Missoulian, felt a rush to judgement on a highly sensitive story involving a young local woman who had been murdered in Washington, D.C. The victim’s name was Cindy Herbig, a star at her Missoula high school
who had gone to Radcliffe for a semester, then dropped out of sight and became a prostitute in the nation’s capital. Her murder was one of the brutal hazards of her profession.
The editor, Rod Deckert, received word of Cindy’s death one night from a local funeral home official who was skimpy with details for obvious reasons. So Deckert began exchanging phone calls with a Washington Post reporter who was preparing a big “fallen angel” story for the Post that would appear in a couple days.
Read it here, or there
For Deckert, the problem was that residents of Missoula could buy the Washington Post from local dealers, and the Post planned to amplify distribution of the story through its national news service to media everywhere.
So Deckert had to make a whole bunch of decisions in very quick succession. Although The Missoulian was a hometown paper and had an added mission to treat Missoula residents with sensitivity and respect, he knew the Post’s story could be read by anyone in town. Even had he wanted to present Cindy’s death as an obituary and go light on details, how would readers react in reading the details in a far-off metro daily with no such value-added mission? What might they think of their own newspaper’s covering-up the details?
More sensitive treatment
Deckert chose the option of publishing the details, over the Herbig family’s objections, but doing so in a more moderate way than the Post was doing. It opened itself up for the ensuing firestorm from local readers and advertisers, published some 150 letters to the editor in the days to come, and reserved the final word in a letter from Cindy’s parents.
Deckert at least had a couple days to make these decisions. Had this event happened today, he would have had to make his decisions immediately because of the online presence of newspapers like The Washington Post.
Like oil and water
I have often told my college journalism students that accuracy and speed often mix about as well as oil and water. Given the difficulty of obtaining the best obtainable version of the truth, it is amazing the news media get it right as often as they do. But the pressure that reporters and editors are under as a result of online media has made that job even harder for those who would separate fact from rumor.
As tantalizing and ubiquitious as rumors are on the Web, they too often fall short of the truth.
Any way you slice it, that is bad news.