McGuire on Media

Arizona Republic did it right and reminded us again why newspapers matter

The Arizona Republic rose to the occasion Sunday morning with a comprehensive, well-written report that answered the important questions in the tragic shooting of Gabrielle Giffords which killed six.

I am not talking prizes or using the P-word here. The Republic simply did an outstanding job of sorting fact from fiction and humanizing a horrible event. The staff and editors did what newspapers do and what newspapers have done for the last 80  years or so.  A big story, which earned some really negative national attention, broke in its state and The Republic came through.

The newspaper published a compelling cover, answered important questions about Federal Judge John Roll, Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman and the University of Arizona intern Daniel Hernandez,who might have saved Giffords life. In six full pages the newspaper “covered the waterfront” as we used to say, and presented Sunday readers with a comprehensive report of a shooting which thrust Arizona and its conservative politics into the national spotlight. 

The newspaper’s comprehensiveness was proven by a story on page A18 headlined Social Media’s power, limits on display. In it, Republic staffer Bill Goodykoontz discussed the issue that consumed media pros all day Saturday. Was social media a boon to coverage of the tragedy or an evil, misused instrument?

It’s the wrong question.

Most of what I personally saw on Twitter was reporting from the mainstream media. It’s the mainstream broadcast media that got it wrong on Congressman Giffords death.  NPR was first and got praise for being first until they were wrong. I personally saw CNN report that they had confirmed her death.

No, the issue here is perspective.  It takes time to gather facts, assess them and put them together in a coherent package. Twitter, Facebook, radio and TV have the capability to be immediate. That inherently means there is often no time nor place for perspective and coherence.

At two separate times Saturday I listened to KTAR 92.3 a high-quality news talk station. The anchors didn’t always know very much but they always had to SAY something. Certainly some things in that scenario are going to be wrong, silly and maybe even incendiary. You try talking for two hours with minimal data and with bulletins emerging while people talk into your ear! The same thing happened on Twitter. Too many people were talking and writing when they knew squat. Without filters we are all more than a little dangerous!

It’s my experience after spending 35 years in newspaper newsrooms reporting fast-breaking big stories that you spend a good part of the day being wrong.  The sorting process is full of learning and that’s why good editors and good rewrite folks serving as filters can save your bacon as you put together an intelligent, complete package.

At one point Saturday I tweeted this: “@timmcguire: Disquieting to watch news sausage being made in Giffords case. Please  slow down & think good thoughts not mean ones.”

I assume it was that tweet, or others like it, that prompted this one: ‘”@mike_eiler It’s easy for the observers in the ivory tower to tell the grunts to slow down.”

My entreaty was actually directed at editors and not the “grunts.”  I know it is very hard, stressful work to gather information when a tragic, big story breaks. Being first and accurate is no easy task. My question is are we best served by this slavish attention to speed?

At one point Saturday I saw a tweet I cannot find now that suggested that perhaps newspapers are the best way to report an event like Saturday’s shooting. 

That unknown tweeter nailed it. The Arizona Republic proved the point Sunday.

My friend and colleague, Dan Gillmor, writes in his excellent new book, Mediactive, about the importance of adopting a “slow news culture.” Certainly a slow news culture would have helped TV, radio and social networks in covering the Giffords case.

But there’s a bigger point here. No matter the business challenges, no matter the buffeting winds of change, newspapers like The Sunday Arizona Republic show us that “slow news” lives proudly in the coherent, comprehensive newspaper coverage of a tragic news story like the ‘Tucson shooting.

Pity the American culture that might have to live without newspapers to cover a day like Saturday.

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