Slusher: Remember reliability, not just immediacy of breaking news

Posted9/3/2015 9:48 AM

Covering breaking news on the so-called 24-hour news cycle has always been fraught with certain perils. It was challenge enough before the turn of the century, when in most cases the only media were three major television networks and a handful of local TV and radio stations. The surge of 24-hour television news in the 1980s and '90s brought new pressures, and the later advent of the Internet turned all of us, even daily newspapers, into outlets where it wasn't just information that was valuable but immediate information.

And today, in an age when alarmingly large numbers of people say they get their information about the world from Twitter, Facebook, Reddit or any of scores of other social media outlets, the immediacy of information has all but taken over other qualities -- notably sensitivity and reliability.


On the former case, you won't find a better reflection than in Burt Constable's Daily Herald column today, in which Burt discusses the many ways in which people instantly co-opted news of the tragic killing of a Fox Lake police officer for their own political and social agendas even before he had been officially identified. On the lawless frontier of the Internet, people are free -- and many seemingly feel the need -- to spew whatever malicious rancor that troubles their waking moments, with no apparent regard for the fact that their comments apply to real flesh-and-blood people. Such callousness is vexing enough, but the damage all this does to the reliability of information adds to the unease with which readers and listeners should approach all this "news" they're getting from their friends and neighbors and political or social fellow travelers at their favorite social media watering hole.

In the case of Fox Lake's Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniwiecz, it could have been easy early on to be misinformed by a variety of misleading details. There were reports that a suspect had been captured, that a woman was among the suspects, that the officer had been killed with his own weapon, that his weapon and pepper spray had been taken and much more, some of it thoroughly untrue, some still unconfirmed and unclear, as investigators strive to balance the need to inform the public with the demands of a difficult search and investigation.

In a much less sensational but also tragic case last week in Mount Prospect, the death of a woman at a railroad crossing became fodder for rampant speculation online until police could release details of their investigation.

To a degree, some of this is understandable. It is natural for people to talk about any tragic event and to fill in gaps of information with their own guesses and speculation, and with easy mass resources as close as the cellphones we all keep constantly within arm's reach these days, it's equally easy to share our speculations and pass along anything we hear, just as naturally as if we were gossiping in the kitchen among a few friends and family.

But it's important to remember, none of us is gossiping in our kitchens about these things. The "information" we get and we pass on can be harsh and harmful. Responsible media have long been aware of this, and even as we wrestle with competitive pressures to be the go-to source for news in the midst of a constantly developing news story, the best of us place a premium on being the reliable go-to source. Even in the era of limited news media, there was no formula or structure for achieving that goal. Now? Well, whether you're passing along information or taking it in, a certain cliché is what comes to mind for me: Be careful out there on the frontier.

Jim Slusher,, is assistant managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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