Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Tiny Error in Fact

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White Out

As I write this, CBS News and Scott Pelley are breaking into regular network programming with news that a Malaysian airlines jet outbound from the Netherlands has crashed in Ukraine near Donetsk.  The jet was cruising at a normal altitude of 33,000 feet and was carrying 298 souls.  First responders report that body parts have been found scattered as far as 7 miles from the crash site, indicating the aircraft broke apart while still in the air.

In describing the incident, Mr. Pelley noted that the jet was 1/2 of the way through its journey when the incident happened.

I want to stop here and acknowledge that when breaking news events like this happen, it is well documented that a lot of the first information to be released is wrong.  This might be because sources are unreliable, or the full scope of the event isn’t fully known.  These are things that can be uncontrollable despite the due diligence fast moving news bureaus try to conduct before releasing the story for dissemination.

But some mistakes that have nothing to do with any of that are just plain puzzling.  Mr. Pelley and CBS needed to check a globe to see that Kuala Lampur is 6333 miles from the Netherlands, while Donetsk is 1642 miles from the Netherlands.  That means the jet was 1/4, not 1/2 of the way through its flight when it crashed.

Is this a big deal?  No and yes.  No because we get the gist; a plane crashed, innocent people were killed.  And it generates hard questions, like was the crash in any way related to the political unrest in Ukraine or President Obama’s announcement yesterday of sanctions on heavy weapons like the kind that are capable of shooting down airliners?  That’s what’s centrally important.

Yes because things like distance do not change.  Distance is something that can be easily checked.  And if it’s not considered important to verify, then why do we have things like rulers and spell checkers and scales and calipers.  On a societal level, do we really care then about things that tell us distance or capacity or speed if we don’t take them seriously?  And where else does this kind of cavalier treatment happen?  Maybe in our financial institutions?  Maybe behind a 3d printer creating intricate parts?  Maybe in surgery?

As a writer and reporter, I remember every time I realized after doing a story that there was something in it I got wrong.  I want to forget those mistakes but I can’t.  But what I can do is research the hell out of the things that are immutable so I can at least be sure I get them right.

There are lots of things that change in the course of a developing story.  And the flurry of the moment can disadvantage a news organization trying to be the first to give sketchy details of an important story.  But for some things, there are few excuses for getting them wrong.

 

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Written by Interviewer

July 17, 2014 at 23:56

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