I had just sat down at the lone computer in a busy hostel in Zagreb, Croatia when a young man in the lobby got a shocking text from a friend. "Michael Jackson is dead," he announced to the room full of fellow travelers, staring in disbelief at his phone.
United in our curiosity, a group of strangers gathered around me as I hurriedly typed the singer's name into Google. Together, we pored over each detail as I clicked on story after story, constantly refreshing the search page. We wanted every single bit of information, and we wanted it instantly.
I can't help but recall this scene every time there's major breaking news, like Saturday's shooting of U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. After such an event, people rush to computers, scroll through Twitter and news sites on smartphones, and crank up TVs and radios, eager for the very latest.
We're in an age where it's not only possible to know breaking news moments after it occurred, it's expected. But as technology and social media change how people get news, the journalist's ever-present balancing act between accuracy and speed has become increasingly difficult.
This is far from a new observation, yet we continue to see grave errors made by supposedly reliable media. Erroneous reports of Giffords' death are just the latest examples of media jumping on a story without verifying the facts: CNN, Reuters and NPR were all claiming the congresswoman had been killed, when in fact she is expected to recover.
To its credit, NPR issued a swift and earnest explanation. "Already all of us at NPR News have been reminded of the challenges and professional responsibilities of reporting on fast-breaking news at a time and in an environment where information and misinformation move at light speed," wrote Dick Meyer, executive editor of NPR News. "We learn, we redouble our efforts and dedication and move forward with our best efforts for the millions who rely on us every day."
Here Meyer speaks to the irony of mainstream media trying to keep up with instant communication the Internet allows. Social media like Twitter can be fantastic sources of news, but they can also be echo chambers of misinformation. It is precisely these scenarios that allow outlets like CNN and NPR to prove their true worth as verifiers of information, and capitalize on the fact that many people still won't believe it until they hear from a trusted news source.
Instead, news outlets are trying to win the speed game, even though they don't stand a chance against everyone on scene taking photos, tweeting and updating statuses - then everyone circulating this information. The sooner journalists and editors understand that their currency has become truth and analysis - not necessarily being first on the story - the sooner talk of the death of traditional media will itself die. There will always be a demand for verified information, not in spite of advancements in technology and social media, but increasingly, because of them.
Media should always aim to get news out in a timely manner. But if it comes at the expense of accuracy, everyone huddled around computers from Arizona to Zagreb won't soon forget it.
Wendy Gillis is in her final year of study in the master of journalism program at Ryerson University. Follow her (hopefully truthful tweets) on Twitter.