Situations like the recently concluded Freddie Roach did-he-or-didn't-he saga are a major reason why. By all accounts, Roach is an upstanding 20-year-old man, a fine middle linebacker whose family has deep connections to University of Alabama football.
But late Monday afternoon, sloppy, haphazard journalism threatened his otherwise solid reputation. WAFF-48, an NBC television affiliate serving the Huntsville area, broadcast a story about a weekend brawl at a nightclub in Sheffield, a small town near the northwest Alabama city of Florence.
By now, you know the details: police apprehended a young man, who allegedly raised his shirt, exposing a handgun. The gun fell to the ground, and the man ran, saying he "couldn't go to jail" because he played football at the University of Alabama.
In any state – especially a pigskin-crazed place like Alabama – this is a legit story. What wasn't legit was the reckless way WAFF-TV handled it.
WAFF's report stated that "sources" were planning to serve Roach with arrest warrants for misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, although Roach was trying to "clear his name."
Too bad his name should never have been brought up to begin with.
Considering how police's basis for potentially pressing charges was flimsy at best – identification from a headshot in a University of Alabama football media guide combined with an eyewitness's account – bringing Roach's name into the matter was reckless journalism at its worst.
At any major journalism school in America, potential journalists are taught to get all of their facts correct before reporting a story, and the consequences of not covering one's basic tenets of reporting and getting it wrong.
Reporters are nothing if the public doesn't trust them – they put their reputations on the line with each story they research and/or report.
So why was WAFF so eager to put its reputation on the line for a shaky story? Why were other news organizations (all on television and radio) so eager to follow?
The answer is simple: ratings. Whenever a major news story breaks, electronic media outlets love nothing better than claiming they were "first" with a story. This trumpeting of one's own horn, theory goes, garners ratings and trust among viewers who believe the speed with which news is delivered camouflages the credibility it lacks.
Trouble is, being first doesn't necessarily equate with being right.
The combination of being first and being right is a "scoop," a much-coveted prize among any legitimate news outlet. Being first and being wrong, however, just serves to scoop dirt on one's reputation. That's what WAFF did to itself by naming names and going in, guns blazing.
Reputable news outlets – namely, virtually every newspaper in the state – tiptoed around the situation because no one had been formally charged or even formally named by the Sheffield Police Department.
Sheffield Police Chief Doug Aycock was even quoted by several news outlets as saying the suspect could have been someone "masquerading" as an Alabama football player. That's hardly a basis to start naming names.
Sure enough, the official news came out Tuesday afternoon: redshirt freshman defensive end Earnest Nance, not Roach, turned himself in to Sheffield police and was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Like Roach, Nance is a native of the Shoals area. But he bears little physical resemblance to his older teammate, which raises questions of why Roach's name was dragged into the public eye to begin with. After the news about Nance's arrest became public, Roach addressed the gathered news media (none of whom were from WAFF-TV 48) and handled the situation with absolute class.
Considering the way his name was, as Roach put it, "dragged through the dirt," few would have blamed him had he huffed off the field and declined to speak a word to reporters the rest of his career. But the Killen native took the high road, admitting he thought the reports were "a joke" which quickly got out of hand.
"It was a mistake," Roach said. "And evidently, someone messed up. I'm just fortunate to have the people I do in my life to support me who believed me the whole time. It's over now, and I'm ready to move on."
He should never have had anything to "move on" from, but thanks to WAFF's whiff, he does.
Roach surely learned a lesson or two about the price of fame this week. Hopefully the news media that jumped to quick conclusions learned a thing or two about proper journalism.
Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for BamaMag.com.