Yesterday, as the media fervor over Foxy Knoxy’s Perugia, Italy, murder appeal reached its peak, everyone — everyone — geared up to break the news. While most on-the-scene reporters were getting ready to tweet and file copy — doing groundwork, gauging the crowd, etc. — at least one outlet had already written its story — the wrong one, coincidentally.
Nick Pisa, a reporter with London’s The Daily Mail, already had pre-written two stories: Amanda Knox was both guilty and not guilty. Then, at 9:50 Perugia time, as the verdict was read, the “guilty” story landed on MailOnline.
OK, you say, so what? Anyone who has ever been in a newsroom knows that hedging time constraints with prepped copy is standard fair. Both the stories were loaded into the paper’s CMS, but someone published the wrong one.
But what made Pisa’s story egregious wasn’t simply that it was pre-prepared. Instead, Pisa’s “guilty” story pretended to shine a light on what had happened in court as the verdict landed.
Is it appalling to predict that Foxy Knoxy would have “looked stunned this evening after she dramatically lost” her appeal? No. (Although certainly there were other options.)
But the story went into deeper detail, too. Mail Watch, a blog that tracks the paper, posted this excerpt:
A few feet away [the victim] Meredith’s mother Arline, her sister Stephanie and brother Lyle, who had flown in especially for the verdict remained expressionless, staring straight ahead, glancing over just once at the distraught Knox family.
The story even quotes “prosecutors” as saying that “justice has been done.” Is that phrase so ubiquitous that the reporter figured it wouldn’t cause any problems?
According to Tim Ireland, a UK web wonk, who published excerpts of an email exchange he had with Pisa yesterday, here’s Pisa’s response:
If you knew anything about reporting and not blogging then you would know two versions are written for court stories on deadline. Also as you are so web obsessed then you will have seen several news organisations made the same mistake.
Late yesterday, Pisa pointed to the Mail as the culprit. After all, some editor posted the wrong story. “I did not see the point in discussing it and I am as angry as you are,” Pisa told Ireland. (On MailOnline the original link is now dead.)
So what should we take away from this?
Sure, it didn’t carry the heft of “Dewey Defeats Truman,” but it was still incorrect. And the fact that the website can so quickly wash away errors is surely positive — fewer people likely saw Pisa’s story — but it also means that the Mail doesn’t have to own up to its mistake.
The Associated Press dealt with a similar faux pas a few months ago, when an initial version of Iowa straw poll results clearly had been prepared to just plug in a candidates name:
Rather, Saturday’s outcome suggests that XXX has a certain level of support and, perhaps even more important, the strongest get-out-the-vote operation and widest volunteer base in a state whose caucuses require those elements.
With these high-profile stories, there’s intense pressure to publish quickly. Most media outlets have adopted a work ethic that requires them to publish the minute a verdict is reached, but as the Mail showed us yesterday, waiting might be better for readers.
Pisa’s story, even if it had been right, wouldn’t have been half as good as the actual, factual stories posted a few minutes later.
The New York Times said Knox “slumped in her chair and began to sob, before falling into the arms of one of her lawyers, Maria Del Grosso.”
The Guardian said that Knox left in “floods of tears, almost unable to hold herself up, followed shortly afterwards by Sollecito, who showed little expression on his face.”
And Reuters reported that a “whoop of joy was heard in the court as the ruling overturning their sentences was read out but Knox herself broke down and was led out sobbing and supported by police officers.”
As usual, the truth just sounds better. You’ll just have to wait a few minutes for it.