12.08.2013

As they demand highly-accurate yet lightning-fast news, are news outlets unfairly treating workers?

The Associated Press may be the world's most recognizable wire service--known for exceedingly fast, pinpoint reporting. As up-to-the-minute news on Twitter becomes the norm, correspondents at the Associated Press and elsewhere are required to produce the same high-quality reporting as ever, while burdened by exceedingly quick deadlines. This shift has put reporters and news outlets in a bind.

At the height of the Virginia governor's race this fall, a veteran reporter for AP made a mistake. On Oct. 9, Virginia politics reporter Bob Lewis mistakenly reported that Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe lied to a federal official who was investigating a death benefits scam. One hour and 38 minutes later, the post was retracted and the 20-year veteran reporter issued a personal apology. Weeks later, Lewis and two of his editors were fired for the mistake.

Documents seemed to implicate an individual with the initials T.M. in the scam, although Lewis did not confirm that it was, in fact, the controversial Democratic candidate. It's clear that Lewis, under immense deadline pressure, had simply made an unfortunate mistake--he's human after all. He had not committed the cardinal sins of plagiarism or fabrication. Journalists and politicians--Democrats and Republicans--agreed that Lewis was one of Virginia's preeminent political reporters. Yet Lewis and his editors lost their jobs after the lapse in judgement.

If any straight-out-of-college reporter made a mistake of this magnitude, it's clear it would be a fire-able offense. But what sort of deference should employers give to their veteran reporters, especially ones with Lewis' stellar track record? Plenty of journalists make mistakes, but if the error was made in good faith, most will live to tell the tale. Is the AP justified in firing a two-decade pro if only to preserve the organization's reputation? And how could the decision effect the ability of their reporters around the globe to confidently break news on short deadlines?

1 comment:

Jared Wasserman said...

It is surprising to me that a reporter of Lewis' caliber was so hastily fired for the mistake that he made. I partially understand the Associated Press position that this was a more consequential mistake in that it involved a Democratic candidate perjuring himself to a federal official. Lewis was clearly negligent in his reporting of the story.

One would think that a 20-year positive track record as a political reporter would afford Lewis some benefit of the doubt. However, it is a strong lesson for aspiring journalists hoping to break into the field that it is great to be first on a story, but being second or third and ensuring that the facts are sound will allow you to keep your job.

I also think that aspiring journalists today need to be hellbent on providing the news and have the skills needed to pump out truthful stories with never-ending deadlines because of that pressure that this generation of reporters faces. Being a young reporter is a more tenuous proposition than before as evidenced by AP parting ways with Lewis in favor of preserving their credibility. No matter how harmless a mistake may be, at a time when being first has become imperative, being right is as important as ever.