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In a Flyover State: You Better Get It Right on Election Night

11/05/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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If you have two young boys at home like I do, finding behavior rowdy
enough to send the dog scrambling under the table won’t phase you.
Hearing yelling at the top of someone’s lungs and seeing objects being
hurled across the house won’t even stir your interest.

And all of that happened in my living room last
Sunday night. But the source of it was not my six-yearold,
or my four-year-old; it was my 39-year-old. As in
my wife.

You see, the missus is a lifelong, rabid fan of a little
baseball team called the San Francisco Giants. And
last week, her Giants swept the Detroit Tigers (with
apologies to our executive editor Melissa Grego and
our friends at Fox Sports) to wrap up their second
World Series crown in three years. And being the mature
adult she is, she basically lost it when closer Sergio
Romo froze Miguel Cabrera to end the series. Thus the
fleeing canine and the yelling and the projectiles. That’s
just good solid parenting by example, isn’t it?

Actually, I didn’t mind her little outburst, it was nice
to have one not directed at me for once. I’m not saying
they aren’t usually warranted; I remain 100% con’ dent
in certain truths, such as: If I stack enough dirty dishes
in the sink they will, in fact, magically jump into the
dishwasher.

But the reason for this free ‡ owing expression of
hers was a baseball team that did what you need to
do to win a title in any sport—they got smoking-hot
at the right time. They were good enough for the 162-
game regular season, but once the postseason started,
they went to a whole other level, twice battling back
from seemingly insurmountable odds to rally and
eliminate teams that may have been as good or better
than them. And then they just destroyed Detroit in the
World Series.

That’s what the great teams and players do: They
perform when it matters most. In baseball, you can
build up your reputation through a full season, only
to find those efforts forgotten if you don’t show up in
October, when it matters most.

And the same can be said for the television news
business.

You can spend an entire year doing great work, but
right or wrong, you are going to be judged even more
based on a few days per year when really big news
happens. Get it right and you sustain and strengthen
your brand. But get something wrong, and that’s
what people remember. From Gabby Giffords to the
Supreme Court ruling to some false reporting during
Hurricane Sandy last week, the list of major league
gaffes in recent memory is way too long.

There are so many places people can get “news”
these days, many of them of the ‘shoot ’first and ask
questions later’ variety. So if you are a major, reputable
news organization, one of the silver bullets to
stay above the fray is being 100% reliable. When you
report it, it has to be fact, period. That’s how you stand
apart from all the blogs and such that put clicks before
fact checking. And with an incredibly heated Election
Night upon us, it will be very interesting to see who
rises to the challenge.

It sounds easy, right? Just report only what you absolutely
know to be true. So why do we keep screwing
it up on major news events?

The problem reared its ugly head yet again last
week as Hurricane Sandy battered New York. Reports
started to swirl that the ‡ oor of the New York Stock
Exchange had flooded, and several news organizations
went with it. At the time, I was watching WABC
in New York, which did an utterly fantastic job the
night of October 29. But having said that, I also have
to pick on them. One of their on-air people went
with the story that the NYSE had ‡ ooded. Didn’t cite
any other reports, just said it as fact. When he threw
to another anchor, that anchor stepped in and said
the report may, in fact, be false. He claimed WABC
wasn’t reporting it themselves, and threw another organization
under the bus as the source of the misinformation.
At that point, now I was throwing things.
Yes, you did report it, citing no other sources, just
seconds earlier. I was there.

If you are going to go with something you do not
know to be true, and then ’ nd out you were wrong,
at least own up to it. That meant there were two hits
on their reputation, not one. Again, I am singling out
WABC because I ended up watching them most of the
night because I found their coverage the best of the local
NY stations. Over the course of an absolutely hectic
night in which they were doing great work while battling
their own electricity issues, they just had a really,
really bad moment. Unfortunately, those are the ones
that stick out.

So as you go into your Election Night coverage,
please keep in mind that it’s imperative to take
a breath. The stakes are as high as they will be for
any non-life-threatening event you will cover. This is
the time to make big plays—or even more so, not to
bobble the ball and commit a costly error. Yes, this
sounds obvious and cliché, but we still seem to forget
it too often: I know you want to be ’first, but remember
’first to be right. Otherwise, you end up with the same
journalistic credibility as some guy sitting in his mom’s
basement lighting up a blog or Twitter with shoddily
or non-reported “news.” Remember: you can spend
years building a brand, but it only takes a second to
destroy it.

So on Election Night, channel the San Francisco Giants.
Be great when it counts, or the rest of the year
doesn’t matter.

E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman

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