Thursday, July 22, 2010

There's always a third side to the story when covering politics

The events of the past two days have sparked a national discussion on topics like context, rushing to judgment, knee-jerk reactions, and the media's obsession with being first. Regardless of which network you were watching, or what talk show you were listening to, it was clear that a lesson was learned by a lot of people.

Yet in all the discussion about the aftermath of a story about a tape played out of context, there was one huge missing element that was the elephant in the room.


And when you're talking politics, there's always a motive.

There are three sides to every political story: he said, she said, and who wants them to say it.

In this case we have a months old tape that was edited and presumably dropped on the media. Was the objective to make the media look bad? The administration look less than thorough? To ruin a woman's life?

We may never know, but if some enterprising reporter out there wants to actually play Woodward and Bernstein for awhile, there's a smoking gun just waiting to be found.

The time before any election is always ripe for this kind of stuff. Over the years I've regularly received calls a few days before an election; some "anonymous" person promising some great dirt on a candidate. Oh, I'd always check it out, but the "source" always ended up working for the opponent. Politicians are always looking for media people to start a "he said, she said" story.

And in the era of 24/7 news, that's a dangerous thing.

These days news people will climb over one another trying to be the first to put a news scoop on Twitter or the station's website, many times without fully checking the facts. While technology has made news presentation lightning fast, speed kills; and often leaves the general public with something not thoroughly researched.

Years ago, before cable news and endless live shots, stories had a chance to breathe. If you found something great at one on the afternoon, you had to wait till six to break it. That lag time gave reporters the chance to do fact checking, something that's an afterthought for today's one-man-band who has to turn two packages and a bunch of live shots. In many cases, the reporter simply doesn't have the time to do a good job.

But when politics is involved, you have to take the time. And if the story's not ready, if all sides aren't thoroughly checked out, you don't run it.

When you find a political story, ask yourself these questions: What is the motive behind the story? Who stands to gain, and who stands to lose? What might the long term effects be of this story? And if you receive a "tip" very close to an election that doesn't leave you enough time to check things out, that should tell you something.

Politicians don't play by our rules. They know there are journalists out there who will do anything for a story, who don't have ethical standards, and most of all, who are too lazy to check things out. They know reporters can be easily manipulated in their quest to be first.

Don't be one of those people. Get all sides of the story, follow the money, figure out the motive, and consider the result. Then, and only then, can you run the story.

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