HAVING OURSELVES all too recently breakfasted on crow, we take no particular pleasure in citing the frailties of others in the local media business. But there is no getting around the fact that our broadcasting colleagues dropped their guard in the worst kind of way Monday night when they rushed to the airwaves with a false report that Mayor Barry had been shot. Compounded by an ultra-fierce competition between stations that unfortunately can propel speed ahead of accuracy, this totally false report swept through the city to produce nearly an hour of grim confusion and grief that a little double-checking might have avoided.
For those fortunate enough to have been spared these awful moments, the report was first broadcast at 9:46 p.m. by WRC-TV -- and then was picked up within minutes by other local television and radio stations and by United Press International. It all stemmed from a telephone call made by a man who indicated he was speaking from the city's emergency command center and who provided a telephone number at which he said more information could be obtained. That number, as everyone can now second-guess, was a crucial element in the hoax -- since it was not the "mayor's command post," as purported by the voice on the other end of WRC-TV's quick call.
Stop right here -- because this is where a few basic checks could have uncovered the hoax and spared people all the agony. Had anyone thought to look up and dial the correct command center number, which the stations have on hand in their newsrooms, the report probably would not have been broadcast at all. A call to the police department homicide squad, which had no report of any such incident, would have had the same effect.
Easy for newspapers to say, since they aren't "on" all the time, but these fundamental procedures were followed by one organization -- Associated Press -- which serves the stations and competes with UPI. AP's editors had their metro staff making calls to the command center, the police, the mayor's press secretary and council members -- and never ran the false report. The first AP story did not go out to stations until 10:34 p.m., and it noted that the shooting report was false.
Up-to-the-minute coerage of major news is an important, worthy pursuit -- and the ability of radio and television to spread the word swiftly is unrivaled. But the immedite broadcasting of an unconfirmed report of a major tragedy -- be it the alleged death of a White House press secretary or the "critical" shooting of a mayor -- is not only bad business, but a wrenching experience for the public.