News media’s rush to be first can have real consequences

Is that what led to the decision to publish a deeply problematic article citing a so-called ‘study’ of Canadian mosques and Islamic schools that was first presented to readers across the country without any reality checks?

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A CBC newsroom in Ottawa in 2005. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

By Amira Elghawaby
The Hill Times | September 6, 2016

News is not just about getting the story; it’s also about getting the story first.

However, as journalist and author Madeline Drohan writes in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada, in this digital age, media accuracy and balance are suffering. That can have major ramifications on all of us.

 “Most traditional media outlets have responded to pressure from social media by speeding up their coverage of events-tweeting, blogging and writing numerous versions of the same story as it unfolds,” points out Drohan.

“Instead of facing one or two deadlines a day, [journalists] are always on. Is it any wonder that inaccuracies go out at the speed of light and then are endlessly repeated in the online echo chamber?”

Drohan then goes on to laud The Canadian Press, where she once worked, as a reliable wire service that provides both accurate and speedy reporting, so that other media outlets can take more time delving more deeply into the issues.

Trouble is, even the venerable CP is on the clock and that means the pressure to be first on a story is immense. Is that what led to the decision to publish a deeply problematic article citing a so-called “study” of Canadian mosques and Islamic schools that was first presented to readers across the country without any reality checks?

Imagine the impact of the accompanying headline in the current climate of fear and suspicion of Muslims: “Islamic schools, mosques in Canada are filled with extremist literature: study.”

The article was reproduced in various newspapers and websites across the country. While two Canadian Muslim organizations were contacted for comment, including our own, the story went ahead before either organization had an opportunity to review the so-called report in order to issue our responses.

And while rebuttals were included in a subsequent followup story, the damage had been done.

“It’s not a mosque, it’s a terrorist command centre,” wrote one commentator below the article posted on social media. “Time to demolish all mosques and deport all Muslims back to the hellholes they came from,” wrote another.

The Toronto Star’s public editor even had to issue an apology for the erroneous placement of a picture of a Toronto mosque to accompany the story. 

And there was a surprise at the end of the apology: a note from the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Press, Stephen Meurice. After explaining why the CP stood by its original story, Meurice acknowledges the wire service should have waited for adequate responses to the “study” before rushing to publish.

“In hindsight, rather than send a shorter and less complete version of the story to wire, we should have waited until we were able to craft a single story with more context, background, and the entire range of available opinion, rather than do two separate stories on successive days-particularly given the potentially sensitive nature of the subject matter, one that often elicits strong opinions and emotions on all sides,” he writes.

Mea culpa statements are welcome and necessary in restoring trust and confidence in our media institutions. Unfortunately, Meurice’s clarification does not appear below any of the original articles anywhere online. Nor has every outlet that ran the original story run the followup.

The real impacts of such headlines are felt on our streets, in our schools, and in our workplaces. In a digital world, errors are “now forever,” as author and BuzzFeed Canada editor Craig Silverman noted in his book, Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. So are one-sided stories.

Further to stoking fear, the CP’s original story, without including any academic rigour, may lead policy-makers on a wild goose chase. In an age in which even our elected officials are rushing to respond to a 24/7 news cycle, the need for media outlets to get their stories right is more critical than ever.

“The media and the government are operating on timetables that are difficult to reconcile … This does not look like a story with a happy ending for the public,” concludes Drohan, though she does hold out hope. And so should we, because everyone’s credibility is at stake.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). Follow her on Twitter @AmiraElghawaby