24-hour news or 'never wrong for long'?

Friday 18 May 2012, 12:36

Torin Douglas Torin Douglas is the BBC's media correspondent. Twitter: @BBCTorinD

'Never wrong for long' is a jibe that dates back to the early days of 24-hour news channels. It neatly links the drive to be first - even if the story is sometimes wrong - with the ability to correct it almost as quickly.

The adage now has added impetus in the age of Twitter as some of the media become more desperate to be first with the news.

An Evening Standard journalist, Tom Harper, recently tweeted the wrong verdict in the Rio Ferdinand privacy case, before the judge had started to announce his ruling. And although the original tweet was quickly removed, it was retweeted and remains there, followed by the reporter's mea culpa:

TimGattSky Tim Gatt
mT @TomJHarper: Rio Ferdinand wins landmark privacy case against Sunday Mirror
29 Sep

TimGattSky Tim Gatt
Clarification: about Tom's tweet about Rio winning his legal case (when he actually lost) RT @TomJHarper My fault! Sorry everyone!
29 Sep

Days later, the Amanda Knox verdict was spectacularly misreported by The Daily Mail and other media in their rush to be first with the news. The Mail headline on its website ran: "Guilty: Amanda Knox looks stunned as appeal against murder conviction is rejected." In fact she won her murder appeal.

The Mail has launched an internal enquiry, according to Press Gazette, which reported: "The same mistake was made on The Sun website, Sky News and The Guardian's live blog, but the Mail appears to be the only news outlet that ran a full-length article."

Press Gazette credited consultant Malcolm Coles with spotting the Mail's error and publishing it on his blog. "I'm not sure it gets more embarrassing than this for a news site," he wrote.

In some ways the error was understandable, as Coles explained - which only goes to show the danger of journalists rushing to be first:

"Unfortunately, like many people, the Mail was caught out by the judge finding her guilty of slander - before clearing her of the murder. At the sound of the word 'guilty', they hit 'publish' on a story about her appeal being rejected, that includes reactions from the family and prosecutors being delighted - reactions that can't have happened as she was found not guilty of murder."

The Mail apologised, in an article alongside the corrected story.

"Confusion over the judge's announcement meant Sky News and several news websites, including Mail Online, briefly reported incorrectly that Knox had been found guilty," it wrote. "This was corrected just over a minute later. We apologise for the error and have launched an enquiry to examine our procedures."

The Mail explained how it was able to produce quotes responding to the wrong verdict:

"It is common practice among newspapers to prepare two versions of an article ahead of a court verdict and these are known as 'set and hold' pieces. The quotes were obtained from various parties in the event of either a guilty or not guilty verdict."

Some challenged the Mail's claim to have corrected the story in little over a minute. On Press Gazette, one said the piece was still up on the web more than an hour later, which prompted this explanation from another respondent:

"To be fair, the Mail probably use a Content Delivery Network (CDN) - a number of globally distributed servers which allow fast downloads of web pages from all over the world. They may have removed the story from their local server within 90 seconds, but cached versions on the CDN could have remained for some time after that."

News channels may still be 'never wrong for long' but on the web speedy reparation seems less easy. That's another reason why they should take a bit more care, and time.

Torin Douglas is Media Correspondent for the BBC.


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    Comment number 1.

    "Never wrong for long" seems to be the motto for the broadsheet publishers in South Africa, forget about twitter and broadcasters! Even the big weeklys here don't bother to do proper research and wind up printing retractions or contradictory reports every week.

    I suppose the challenge going forward for broadcasters is to balance getting news out asap with proper vetting of content before it goes out.


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