It’s no secret I went to journalism school. (The best one, by the way.)
And in the hallowed halls of the first school of journalism, I learned about Woodward and Bernstein, investigative journalism, protecting your source, and working the story. The truth is, there’s always something more to a story than the surface—but the surface story is the easiest to get and the easiest to report.
But journalism is changing. With the onset of Twitter, social media, and the 24 hour news cycle, we’ve made having new news the big deal. Everyone wants to break the story first—and next to no one wants to do the work it takes to dig a little deeper and find the pieces of truth.
Last week, the fact that journalism was changing was brought home to me in the microcosm of my alma mater’s, the University of Missouri, search for a new head basketball coach. Our athletic director had made a play for Purdue’s Matt Painter; he listened to Missouri; he was expected to make a decision on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Twitter and hourly updates on reputable news sites swirled out of control. Painter had accepted; Painter hadn’t decided; Painter said no. All day long different versions of each of those scenarios found its way onto Twitter and other social media, and often, news websites.
Respected news reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch even posted that Painter was a sure thing at Missouri. And when I say respected, I mean that. Bernie Micklasz is a good reporter who has spent years developing sources and writing about Missouri sports for the Post-Dispatch. He was one of the first reporters on the Mike Anderson-to-Arkansas story—and he turned out to be right, even when everyone else was reporting Anderson was staying at Mizzou. I trust Micklasz because he’s rarely wrong.
But he was last week. He reported what a source had told him, and I truly believe that. He was reporting what a trusted source had told him. Probably someone he’d trusted before and someone who he truly believed was giving him correct information. Did he try to substantiate that info? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll probably never know.
Bottom line, I think he got burned by a source who either had incorrect information and thought he/she was telling the truth (what I’d like to believe) or a source who just outright lied.
This isn’t necessarily an example of bad journalism; it’s an example of a journalist who made a mistake, something Micklasz publicly admitted. Should he have worked a little harder and dug a little deeper into the story? Probably. But in an industry that lives and dies by the 24 hour news cycle, he probably just wanted to break the story. So, he took the information someone he trusted had given him and ran with it.
I don’t say that with any kind of judgment. I know that when I worked on newspapers, I’ve run with stories that needed more research. I feel for him because I’ve been there—maybe not as publicly or on such a big issue (at least to Missouri sports fans), but I understand. He had likely developed this source and had come to trust him or her over years of working together. It may be that multiple sources confirmed with him. Whatever happened, he had come to trust whomever gave him the info, and he reported it.
Do I wish he’d dug a little deeper? Yeah. I think he should have. Undoubtedly. That’s a mistake, a lapse in so-called good journalism practices. I admit that and so would he, I believe.
But I also know that drive to break the story is real and alive. And in an industry that’s struggling, that need to break the story probably colors a lot more journalism than the desire to be the bearer of truth. Or as the arch that leads off campus in the Journalism section of the University of Missouri reminds those who study there: “the wise shall be bearers of light.”
And sometimes we fail at that.