Better to be right than to be first

Devastation from flooding and acts of terror have seen public services respond quickly and effectively over the last fortnight. But the coverage of these events raises some serious questions about the standards of rolling news media.

In an emergency, public communication must reassure and inform. This is being undermined by the desperate battle between TV broadcasters to be first with news.

The danger of being first, rather than right, was illustrated by the Ibiza airport bomb. BBC News 24 announced it as ‘breaking news’ and was forced to clarify it minutes later, no doubt because worried relatives of Spanish holiday­makers had besieged the switchboard. The broadcaster had failed to report the core fact – the airport had been evacuated before the bomb exploded.

The defused bomb in Haymarket saw some extraordinary comments, with the incident reported as ‘9/11 without the dead’ and unnamed police sources quoted as saying that the bomb could have caused ‘carnage’. This was immediately presented as the official line. Similarly, reports of the Yorkshire floods predicted ‘up to 30’ missing or dead when the actual toll was, thankfully, much lower.

Rolling news relies on hastily assembled ‘two-ways’ and ‘experts’, which may explain why trust ratings are lower for these news channels. It can be difficult to discern what is fact and what is opinion. In a crisis, the public turn to television to be reassured. They look for clear information, but in many cases can only be confused by competing commentators, presenting assertion as fact.

These issues need to be addressed through the official forums that bring together government and the media. It requires broadcasters to report developing emergencies responsibly and places a new challenge on public agencies to provide accurate information quickly.
Research after the July 7 bombings showed that people trusted frontline responders such as the police far more than politicians because they offer reassuring practical advice.

The public still trust broadcast media more
than print. But if broadcasters are to retain this position, then they should not allow the demands of rolling news to create panic when it is facts and reassurance that people are looking for most.

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