Marshall: Covering the Tuberville Story

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about his current assignment covering Tommy Tuberville and the Auburn Tigers.

New York City, N.Y.--It doesn't seem that long ago that I wrote my stories on a manual typewriter. If I wanted to keep a copy, I had to use carbon paper. Moving paragraphs around was all but impossible. You edited with a thick black pencil. If you messed up badly enough, you just had to start over.

From there, the newspaper business went through several stages. We had a scanner system in which we used electric typewriters and had to make corrections with little codes that were typed between lines. We joined the computer age some 30 years ago. Now we have come to the wild and sometimes crazy world of 21st-century journalism.

Once upon a time, there were morning papers, afternoon papers and nothing in between. If you worked for a morning paper, you were more in tune with hard, breaking news, providing information. If you worked an afternoon paper, you still wanted to be the first to break stories, but most of the time you were trying to explain and expand on news that had already been reported in morning papers and often on television.

Lordy, is it different now. Afternoon papers have gone the way of the dinosaur. If we uncover news, we are expected to put it on the Internet immediately. Beating the opposition or not is often measured in minutes. I recently delayed putting a story up because I had to keep a promise and pick up a tuxedo for my son. By the time I got home, my colleague Charles Goldberg of The Birmingham News had already posted his version of the story.

Such is the world in which we now live, and for a reporter, it can be a dangerous world.

The pressure to be fast, if one isn't careful, can result in not being as thorough as one needs to be. You learn early as a reporter than you can't assume something is true just because someone says it is. Many people who talk to you, confidentially or otherwise, have agendas of their own. It is incumbent on all of us to do all we can to make sure information is accurate before we make it public.

No one likes to use anonymous sources, but sometimes we have little choice. Most of us only use them if we know they are in position to know what they are talking about and have shown in the past that they are trustworthy. Do we sometimes get burned? You bet we do, and it's embarrassing when it happens.

When I was getting ready to begin my first newspaper job, my late father, then the sports editor of The Birmingham News, gave me valuable advice, and it took him just three words to do it: "Get it right." The fact is that, if you don't get it right, it doesn't matter how well a story is written or how many cute phrases you turn. Erroneous reporting is worse than no reporting at all.

I can think of no better example of what we call the 24-hour news cycle than the coverage of the ongoing saga of Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville.

All of us who write about Auburn have spent a lot of time trying to uncover information. It's pretty easy to know that a lie is being told when one person tells you something and another tells you the direct opposite. What's hard is knowing who it is that is doing the lying.

It's also important to remember that sometimes we report what someone says. If Tuberville or athletics director Jay Jacobs says something, it's news. That doesn't mean, as reporters, we agree or disagree. The news is that they said what they said.

I have spent the past two days in cold and windy New York City because this is where Tuberville is, where university president Jay Gogue is and where athletics director Jay Jacobs will be on Tuesday. They are the main players in this story, so when they went north, so did I and so did Goldberg. The mission is no longer to get it in the newspaper first, but to get it on first.

I'll keep doing my best to get it first, though I won't always succeed. The medium is different in so many ways, but at its core, it's the same. It's still about reporting news and it's still about taking that advice my father gave almost 40 years ago.

Get it right.

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