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television: Speckled Spotlight

Saturday's breaking news was spotty at best: They had the images, but the facts weren't quite accurate.

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I'd give them a generous D+.

Oh, there were lots of images. CNN had the first pictures — bewildering shots of police cars, their red-and-blue lights casting neon glare on highways and lookie-lous. MSNBC followed with not much more than a helicopter shot of gridlocked highways and a glut of lime-green maps with a digital pushpin marking the approximate location of Ashland. Fox's images relied even more heavily on maps of I-95 and Route 1 with a digital tickmark aimed at the site.

Ah, yes, Ashland. As we all know, it's pronounced Ash-lund, emphasis on the first syllable. CNN got that right. But over on MSNBC during those first hours, Richmonders would have been forgiven if they thought the sniper had struck someplace else entirely — in some Virginia community called Ash-land, emphasis on both syllables.

And where is this sleepy Victorian town? All three national all-news networks got some of it right. They knew it was south of Washington, D.C., and north of Richmond. But how far south of D.C.? That was problematic. Anchors inside the Beltway moved Ashland all over the map, from "just south of Fredericksburg" to "90 miles south of Washington." OK, they weren't far off, but they were off — sometimes miles off in a profession that prides itself (or should) on accuracy.

It's what happens today: The three cable news networks are far more adept at getting pictures than they are at getting information. The pictures are fast and even sometimes good, but the information lags. It was hours later before the network anchors nailed down even the age of the victim and the time of the shooting. For at least 90 minutes, CNN, Fox and MSNBC were saying that he was 60 years old and that the shooting happened at 8:30 p.m. or even 8:45 p.m. In reality, he was 37 and the attack occurred at about 8. That's what happens when pictures are easier to provide than hard information. To get it right, you've got to have somebody on the ground. The local stations did. The cable networks didn't.

First-on-the-scene journalism is chaotic, no doubt about that. But journalists worth the bucks they're paid know there's one thing even more important than being first, and that's being right. Facts trump rumors, and pictures without context and hard facts are mere turmoil — eye-candy at best, misleading and deceptive at worst.

It's rare, fortunately, that what happens here in the Richmond area draws a national spotlight. Tragically, the spotlight was on us Saturday night. But locals got a valuable lesson out of it, and I don't mean "watch your surroundings while you're at a gas station or a parking lot."

I mean this: When a big story breaks and you tune to one of the cable news networks for information in the first hour or two, believe what you see, for what that's worth (and often it's not worth much). But trust only half of what you hear. If they can't get the basics right, how wrong are they on the rest of the story? S

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