The ghastly editorial snarl ups over the Amanda Knox verdict announcement may have revealed (again) journalism’s dirty secret. No, it’s not that journalists are biased, lazy or stupid, though like everyone, they are sometimes all those things. The real problem is that they are slaves to formula.
[The first version of this article with lots of interesting comments appears on the Guardian's Comment Is Free]
While Tweeters were rushing to announce that Knox was ‘guilty’, oops, we mean ‘not guilty’, so was the mainstream media. Various outlets including Sky, the Guardian and most notoriously, the Daily Mail launched into the ‘guilty’ narrative before they realised that she had been found guilty of slander, but cleared of the much more serious murder charge.
What does this prove about modern media and its capacity to report breaking news? Well, in some ways it shows that not much has changed beneath the surface. Anyone who followed the Louise Woodward ‘killer nanny’ trial in the late 90s will have recognised how national media organisations tend to back their own citizens when on trial abroad – especially when they are young women. While the BBC’s Martin Bashir gave her a platform to declare her innocence, American media remained convinced of her guilt and named her the most ‘notorious criminal convicted in Massachusetts’ ten years after she was released.
Sex, media and the courts do not make a great mix, if the outcome is supposed to be justice or truth. The Knox case doesn’t help advocates of TV cameras in courts, but what does it say about the new social media kids on the journalism block?
It confirms the fact that Twitter is a brilliant device for instant revelations, but that a Tweet is only as good as the Tweeter. In this case most of the micro-bloggers who falsely announced Knox’s guilt were miles away from the actual story and were simply re-tweeting the mistakes made by the professional journalists camped out in the medieval Umbrian town where the case was actually happening. The social media savvy hacks in Perugia were adding to the confusion with the same error in 140 characters. Luckily, Twitter also sorts these things out pretty quickly and within minutes the (revised) truth was out.
Then attention online switched rapidly to mistakes made in haste by the mainstream media. Of course, ‘never wrong for long’ Sky News took a deep breath and cleared up its own confusion. Newspapers as editorially diverse as The Guardian and The Mail also blundered in the first few minutes. Of course, there was a time when the papers would have the luxury of deadlines. But now we are all Digital First they are competing directly with the rolling news channels and the legions of cyber-journalists waiting to press the ‘publish button’. It was all put right in minutes, leaving in its wake some embarrassing screenshots of hapless headlines. The Internet may be instantly amendable, but it never forgets.
The pressure to be instantly live is intense. Scoops are now measured in micro-seconds as editors seek desperately to become the public’s ‘go to’ channel or platform for instant history. If you are a second behind the competition then Google will have sent the searchers to a rival’s website.
But what really annoyed many people on Twitter and elsewhere was the fact that the Mail had prepared a whole series of articles including manufactured quotes and photographs captioned ‘imaginatively’ to tell the story of a guilty Knox. This is journalism’s dirty secret. No, not that the Mail has made things up but that journalism as a whole is often about process not accuracy.
Of course, The Mail went much too far with its concoction of captions, quotes and library images used for real. It broke the sacred bond between a journalist who reports and the audience who trusts them as a witness.
But we know that just about every other news organisation had similar versions ready to run. It is standard practice in broadcast journalism to prepare alternative versions – often with pre-filmed ‘reaction’ quotes. The real sin here is that in the rush to be first, so many were simply first to be wrong.
It’s crazy that with such a planned, predictable news event that seconds should matter. I realise that in these extraordinarily competitive times and with such a massively popular story, that this will probably be the case. But in a world of super-abundant and unreliable media communications, I still hope that it is not frantic formula but the process of verification that wins in the end.