Letter to the Editor: Reports broadcast on pager service sometimes misinform

When radio and TV spewed false reports of a gunman at Rider last week, they recklessly and needlessly raised tension on an already jittery campus. Still mourning our own tragedy and reeling after Virginia Tech, we didn’t panic. But classes were disrupted, and anxious parents phoned. We endured an hour of uncertainty we could have — and should have — done without.

What really happened was a minor incident involving a BB gun at a prep school up the road. How did that get mistranslated into a gunman loose at Rider, sending helicopters aloft, provoking radio guys to rant and resulting in TV images of “Rider” as a crime scene? How did the media get it so wrong?

Police radio was not to blame. There is no way a township dispatcher — intimately familiar with local geography and strictly accountable to the public and fellow officers — would translate The Lawrenceville School into a campus a mile away. And if some demented dispatcher had done so, police cars would have screamed through our front gate. They didn’t.

No, there’s another culprit. It’s a little-known service that media competitors share even as they boast of independence.

The Breaking News Network (BNN) pager system claims it “has a full-time staff of reporters and news-gathering professionals who bring the latest news and information to your pager, cell phone or mobile e-mail 24 hours a day — every day — AS IT HAPPENS!”

Most journalists in our area who chase hard news — police reporters, TV assignment editors, freelance photographers — subscribe to the BNN pager. Some of those same professionals also feed tips to BNN, gratis.

Other tipsters, however, are amateurs. “Are you an avid scanner enthusiast or fire buff?” the company asks. “If so, Breaking News Network wants you!” No matter who submits the tips by computer, the brief reports (just a telegraphic sentence or two) get dispersed immediately, without editing or verification.

Sometimes BNN is dead-on accurate, as when Gov. Jon Corzine was injured. But local reporters agree that first report on the BNN pager last week said “Rider,” not “The Lawrenceville School.”

How could such a mistake occur? It’s easy. Picture a tipster not too familiar with our area, maybe someone in another state. BNN’s service covers the East Coast from Fairfield County, Conn., to Washington, D.C.

The tipster hears a police call in Lawrence with words like “gun,” “dorm,” “campus,” and “Route 206.” Maybe he misunderstands “The Lawrenceville School” as “the Lawrenceville school.” Because he knows only Rider, not any other “campus” on Route 206, he makes an assumption.

“Rider” goes out instantly to outlets like N.J. 101.5, CNN and Fox News. They, without verification, repeat the pager report instantly to their audiences.

It’s possible to use news pagers responsibly. When I edited police news at The Times of Trenton, the paper’s rule was never to publish information from them — or even from actual police calls — without confirmation. The idea was that pager messages were news tips, not news stories. Broadcasters should revert to that newspaper rule. It would cost them only a couple of minutes.

There’s a bigger reason why this is important. “As societies modernize and become richer, their networks become more complex, interconnected and faster,” says Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon in The Upside of Down. That’s all fine when the result is increased productivity. But speed and connectivity can also “combine with stresses to make breakdown more likely and, when it happens, more disruptive.”

Because the BNN pager system connects with a large number of newsrooms, it’s what Homer-Dixon would call a “hub” in a “scale-free network.” Here’s the clincher: “If a scale-free network loses a hub, it can be disastrous, because many other nodes depend on that hub.”

It’s not in anyone’s interest for so many media outlets to depend so much a weak link. When the flow of breaking news literally broke last week, audiences were misinformed, broadcasters lost credibility, and we at Rider had an extra, unwelcome dose of stress.

— Dr. Thomas Simonet
Professor of Journalism

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