Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tiger and the Truth

As a journalist — and I'm talking about a real journalist, with college degrees and newsroom experience and everything — I find a lot of sense in what Dan Le Batard writes in the Miami Herald about the recent Tiger Woods incident.

"Truth," he writes, "is one of the many things that gets trampled today when boring facts can't keep up with the media's need to feed instantly and the public's appetite to be fed faster than that."

It's always been frustrating for journalists that news stories are often incomplete, that reporters must wait while facts are gradually disclosed and answers emerge.

It is even more frustrating today.

"We get news faster than we ever have," Le Batard writes. "We just can't trust it to be right."

So, as Le Batard observes, in the absence (so far) of a statement from Woods, the "news" we get tends to be gossip and speculation. And we're left with, as Le Batard writes, "what we kind of know."

It strikes me as yet another chapter in the evolving debate over the role of "citizen journalism." I have often written, particularly in my Freedom Writing blog, about the conflict between today's citizen journalism and traditional journalism. And nothing I have seen suggests to me that the so–called "citizen journalist" (whose only qualification to report the "news" often appears to be nothing more than the fact that he/she has access to a cell phone and a computer) is better prepared to inform the public on matters of substance than the journalist who went to college and covered general assignments for newspapers.

It has to do with more than the writing ability of the citizen journalist. It has to do with news judgment.

John McIntyre, former copy desk chief at the Baltimore Sun, mentions the Woods incident briefly in a blog entry titled "Not news." To a certain extent, he is correct. The fact that someone was involved in a single–vehicle accident a few feet from his own front door in which, apparently, no one was seriously injured likely would not, in the opinions of most news editors, be newsworthy.

But what makes this case unusual is the fact that it wasn't Joe Six–Pack who was involved in the accident. It was Tiger Woods, the #1 golfer in the world and one of the most recognizable people on the planet.

The fact that Woods is known to millions, obviously, is going to affect the newsworthiness of the story. And news judgment is certainly something that one learns and develops. In my experience, it is seldom, if ever, something that one is born with.

It is a topic about which I wrote about last summer, as the media (both traditional and nontraditional) got worked up about the memorial service for Michael Jackson.

Actually, the day that Jackson died is a perfect example of the tug–o–war that goes on between speed and accuracy today. On that afternoon back in June, the citizen journalists were quick to report that Jackson had died, but CNN refused to say anything more than it could confirm, which was that Jackson had been taken to the hospital. Once CNN got someone in authority to confirm that Jackson had, indeed, died, it joined the media chorus proclaiming his passing and scrambling to get comments from those who knew him, who worked with him or who merely listened to his music.

I must admit that I appreciated CNN's insistence upon confirming such a development before running with it — even though its competitors did not seem to hesitate to get the word out. What if they had been wrong? Once the world breathed its sigh of relief that Jackson had not died after all, how many news organizations would have been sued for jumping to an unsupported conclusion?

Well, Woods needs to bite the bullet and speak to investigators. After postponing meetings on Friday and Saturday, Woods apparently canceled an interview that was scheduled for today. He made a statement on his web site accepting responsibility but offering no other details.

The citizen journalist may be too awed by Woods' celebrity status to pursue the matter any farther. But the trained journalist, who must answer to his editors, will not let it die that easily. And, while it may not seem that way on the surface, that is a good thing for Woods.

I understand this is embarrassing for him, but will rampant, unchecked rumors be less so?

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