“News is the first rough draft of history,” Philip Graham.
I love this quote because it emphasizes the importance of reporting as a method of documenting our world for future generations. Sometimes in the news business we get so caught up in the deadline hustle that we forget to think about the long-term importance of our work. This quote reminds us of that eternal value.
Shifting the lens slightly, we can see that this quote also could speak to the power of perception. When people form opinions about issues or other people, it is extremely difficult to get them to change those perceptions. Therefore, many times what is reported first becomes engrained in people’s beliefs.
Consider, for example, Stella Liebeck. You probably remember Liebeck as the woman who was burned by her McDonald’s coffee. If you heard about this case in 1992 when it occurred or after, you likely thought the same thing I did: “No kidding, lady, coffee is hot.” It probably seemed ridiculous that Liebeck then filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against McDonald’s because her coffee burned her. I remember thinking that people sue over the most ridiculous things.
Here’s what I didn’t know at the time, and you may still not know. The coffee served to Liebeck wasn’t just hot. It was scalding. The 79-year-old woman received third-degree burns to her pelvic region, resulting in her hospitalization for treatment, including skin grafts, and years of subsequent medical treatments.
That’s a heck of a lot worse than just burning your tongue on the first sip of your coffee.
However, many people still think of Liebeck as the crazy lady who sued because her coffee was hot. It was the first part of the story they heard, and the only part they remember.
This certainly isn’t the only example of people forming long-lasting perceptions as a result of initial or incomplete information.
About 40 percent of Americans still are uncertain that Barack Obama is a citizen. And at least a portion of the population believes Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza went to the school to kill his mother, who it originally was reported worked there. Lanza actually killed his mother, who did not work at the school, at their home earlier that morning.
These are just a few examples of how initial information released by at least some media outlets formed lasting impressions in the public’s minds.
Consider this fact in relation to your job as a journalist. You’ve probably heard the old question “Is it better to get it first or get it right?” I argue that you don’t have to choose between being timely or accurate. But, if we find ourselves in the position to choose, we must choose accuracy. We don’t want the draft of history we’re creating to be filled with errors that become people’s realities.