Commentary: Speed trumps accuracy

Reporters have always wanted to be the first to break news, but with new technology comes even more desire to be first. Has accuracy suffered?

The Brett Favre saga has pointed out something that has become a disturbing trend in the media over the last couple of years – that accountability to reporting has taken a pretty serious hit in the way of maintaining credibility.

Ever since the announcement that Favre asked for and was granted his release by the Jets, opening the door to his potential return to the NFC North, people have jumped on the story and refused to let go. There have been a lot of red herrings that have had little staying power, ranging from Brad Childress flying to Mississippi to meet with Favre to Childress imposing a deadline on Favre to sign with the Vikings. Neither of those stories, along with several others, really came to pass.

With the immediacy of blogs and Twitter, when a reporter hears something, there is the possibility of putting it out there quickly without really being sure of the story. It harkens me back to almost a decade ago. In January 2001, the Ravens had just completed their championship season and our own lovable poobah Bob Lurtsema called me about 11 p.m. to post a story on our website.

The story was about the decision of Robert Smith to retire. I was admittedly skeptical. Lurtsema was calling from a place that was very loud – it wasn't a church – and the news simply didn't make sense. Why would Smith, who was in line for a monstrous free agent contract, simply walk away from all that money? We reported it and, when there wasn't a follow-up announcement immediately, we came under considerable heat from the local media as trying to simply pump up our own website visibility.

As it turned out, Smith confirmed the story 10 days later and the credit for breaking the story was given to a newspaper in Cleveland. While Viking Update was vindicated, there wasn't any attribution that the same story had been reported more than a week before the Cleveland sports writer was credited with "breaking the news."

That part of reporting – getting "the scoop" – hasn't changed, but how it is dealt with has. Last year, there was a shoving match between ESPN and the NFL Network. NFLN would report something at 1 p.m. and, a couple of hours later, ESPN would report the same story, except with the claim that "ESPNs Chris Mortensen reports…" or "ESPN's John Clayton reports…" the same news – but giving the impression that they broke the story. It turned into a war of words and, while ESPN is now much more willing to give credit for news items to the source website or publication, it seems that the battle to be the first to get a story out to the public – whether accurate or not – has become the primary goal.

In a radio interview Wednesday, Childress called this practice into play, saying that the source-gathering of information is "questionable." He flatly denied ESPN reports of a deadline, which really made no sense when viewed from a rational perspective. The ESPN story claimed Childress had put a deadline of Tuesday on Favre to show up at the team OTAs. When he didn't, talks were "temporarily suspended," ESPN said. The problem? Before Favre could attend such an OTA as a Viking, two things would likely have to happen. First, he would have to be under contract. He wasn't. Second, he would have to pass a team physical. Considering that the best word we have is that Favre had a surgical procedure two or three weeks ago, there is no way he could have passed a physical administered by any doctor that isn't just following team orders.

Those considerations alone made the story dubious at best and Childress only hammered home that point by saying not only was there no truth to the report, but that he has never set a deadline with Favre and his people. For whatever reason, ESPN is sticking to its story, despite vehement denials from the person who was the subject of the rumor.

In an era where getting news right has seemingly taken a backseat to getting it out quickly, stories such as the Favre opus will continue. It isn't confined to Favre. Prior to the draft, a story circulated on a draft-related website about several players testing positive at the Combine, including a pair of USC linebackers suspected of testing positive for steroids. As it turned out, that story was wrong, but the authors and those who passed along the information as accurate were able to get publicity for their website because it was "news." Not accurate news, just news.

Hopefully the Favre story will serve as a test case for the media not to jump at the first sight of a potential scoop. Often times those are wrong. When there have been inaccuracies in newspaper stories, the authors have often come under fire for the mistakes in reporting. But in the age of immediate news, it doesn't seem that there is the same accountability. Another story simply knocks the inaccurate story off the front page or a paragraph or two can be added simply to gloss over the mistake.

Welcome to the new era of reporting, where "All the News That's Fit to Print" has been replaced by "All the News We Can Get to You Fast."

Viking Update Top Stories