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Seek the truth before the scoop

When a crisis occurs, people want answers. They want the absolute latest information, and in today’s digital age, they’re not willing to wait for the next newscast or the next issue of the paper to land on their front stoop to get it.

To meet those needs — and, more importantly, to become the most-watched, most-read, most-clicked media outlet around — reporters race to be the first to share information no one else has, dashing to the scene, hurtling over bystanders and rushing to release everything they hear to the world at large.

In this industry, prestige is built on being first.

But when being first means reporting erroneous information, it can instantly cause a station or newspaper’s credibility to crumble.

During the Coast Guard’s multi-day search for former USF football players Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler — who was found and rescued Monday afternoon — as well as NFL stars Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, Tampa Bay media outlets spread a series of incorrect reports.

The four men had gone fishing in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday morning when rough weather and tumultuous seas caused their 21-foot boat to turn over. When they didn’t return that evening, the Coast Guard’s search began.

Unfortunately, so did the media’s frenzied pursuit of being first.

On Monday, 10 Connects was first to announce that a person had been found in the gulf — and erroneously reported that it was Cooper, not Schuyler. Then, on Tuesday, FOX 13 reported that multiple news stations announced that a body had been found in the water near Sarasota. The person who contacted authorities had said it looked like a body — but after further investigation, it was determined to be a giant fish.

While these mistakes may result in momentary frustration for viewers, they can be
devastating for victims’ families and friends. Hearing that a friend, a son, a nephew or a teammate has been rescued can overwhelm a person with a mix of relief, happiness and the nervous, pulsing urge to see him immediately — to view him with one’s own eyes and know the he’s OK.

Then, imagine the crushing, agonizing ache that courses through one’s body upon learning that it’s not true. Or the dread upon hearing that a body has been found, and the fervent hope that it isn’t a loved one. Then, a while later, another shock to one’s emotions: a false report — again.

Journalists continually parrot the Poynter Institute’s call to be correct over being first, but as this incident shows, it’s not always put into practice. No media outlet can be right all the time — this paper included — but more consideration for those affected by the story must be taken before rushing to scoop competitors.