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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

WJZ should have clearly corrected its report citing sources on Pugh fleeing state

One thing you can always count on with a big, fast-breaking story is that social media will invariably be filled with some false information and irresponsible speculation connected to it.

Thursday’s story of an FBI raid Thursday on locations connected to embattled Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has been no exception.

The surprise is that much of the bad information was generated by a CBS-owned station, WJZ-TV, not some random site masquerading as a legitimate news platform.

A string of tweets reacted to WJZ reporting about sources saying she may have left the state. The link now goes to an updated story saying she is in Baltimore, but not clearly correcting the earlier speculation.

Here’s a screengrab showing what the initial reporting said, citing a single source.

A tweet from WJZ reporter Rick Ritter at 11:38 a.m. saying “sources tell @wjz” that Pugh “may have left the state.”

By 2:44 p.m., the Sun’s Kevin Rector tweeted that he had spoken to Pugh’s attorney who said she was at home.

At 3:40 p.m., WJZ still had a report on its website headlined: “Where is Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh?”

The station should have acknowledged publicly by this point that earlier speculation about Pugh leaving the city was not confirmed and was now said to be incorrect by her attorney. Instead it went with a lead asking where she was.

“Where is Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh? It’s the question buzzing around the city as the FBI and IRS raid Pugh’s home, City Hall and several other locations tied to her Thursday. But, no one has seen the mayor even though she’s supposed to be recovering from pneumonia.”

That’s the first paragraph.

Then the second paragraph says, “WJZ has learned Pugh is at one of her Baltimore homes, despite an earlier report saying she was out of town.”

The unnamed earlier report in that second paragraph was actually WJZ’s. I tried to click on what appeared to be a link to the “report,” but it did not take me to that earlier report.

Look, in fast-breaking, rolling coverage, incorrect information gets published, especially on social media. I hate it. But it happens.

The publisher of it, however, has an obligation to clearly tell readers where it was wrong and what it now knows to be true. And it needs to be attached to the original report with a correction tag. It is not acceptable to just update the story with the new information.

One of the results of not clearly and cleanly correcting misinformation is that it gets picked up by others and can expand exponentially. That happened with the New York Post, for example, picking up the story line of Pugh fleeing the state.

(The Post later corrected its report with accurate information from the Sun.)

WJZ responded to questions about its coverage in an email Thursday night.

“This morning, at 8:30 am, two sources close to the mayor told WJZ she had left the state,” the email said.

“We reported that,” it continued.

“We subsequently learned that despite her intention to get out of town, she did not end up going after all.

“Once we confirmed she in fact remained in Baltimore, we reported that updated information multiple times over the course of several hours.

“During lengthy breaking news coverage, information is fluid and can change. We constantly update our reporting as new facts become known,” the station’s email concluded.

Updating is fine, and information changes. But a reputable news source needs to acknowledge its errors.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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