Trust But Verify: The Highs and Lows of Producing Breaking News

 In Blog

by Brian Holt

“Trust but verify,” Ronald Regan once said.

Those words never rang more true than in covering breaking news. The chaos and confusion surrounding a breaking news story is inherent; it’s the very DNA of any such event. Misinformation is flying, facts are sometimes forfeited, and being first becomes first and foremost. It’s not only a producer (and host’s) job to ensure what they are reporting is factual; it’s their responsibility. It is their responsibility to their brand, to the station they serve and most importantly, to their listeners.

As most of you know, Southern CA recently had the nation’s eyes and ears6a00d8341c630a53ef017d40da0bf1970c-640wi.jpg focused on the region with the Christopher Dorner “cop killer” story. It’s a tragic story no doubt. But in the news/talk business it was also a great story that had legs. Everyday we would hope for and wonder if the story would break wide-open during our show. And when it did, the chase was on… for all involved.  Every media outlet was on a mission to find out all they could and “bring it to you live with the very latest.” 

Now I’m no novice at covering breaking news. I’ve covered everything from the BP Oil Spill to the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami to the Seal Beach Massacre, to name only a few. And without fail or fumble I always managed to do a good day’s work.

But in this most recent case I made a cringe worthy and rather rookie move that should remind us all to never get too comfortable or too caught up in being the first — not before being the best.

From the very beginning when the story broke, our listeners in Big Bear were on it! They were eyewitnesses to what was happening and they were able to report to us what was going on before anyone else. Most of the media had packed up a couple of days before as it was now thought (and being reported on) that Dorner may have fled to Mexico.

So when Dormer was spotted and the police chase was on, we knew before almost anyone else. Their reports time and again were proven to be true and accurate. We came to rely on the eyewitness first hand accounts for much of the early reporting while our reporter was enroute. It was great radio in the making! 

One of the more gripping pieces to this story was audio of the shootout caught by a CBS news reporter. It was being picked up everywhere and played repeatedly. So when a listener sent in some “fresh” and what was labeled as “never before heard” police scanner audio that was even more gripping, I thought we were on to something. I listened to the audio no less than 3 times and I was riveted.

This was good stuff. Compelling, and even better it had news value – or so I thought – because it revealed clues not yet being reported. I told my host I had some unbelievable tape we needed to play– now! And so we did… We no sooner finish the shocking 1:30 of audio and begin to offer analysis on the new clues revealed when my news department broke in and told us that what we had just played was scanner tape from the infamous 1994 Northridge Bank of America shootout. “Are you !!*?¥ kidding me!?”  Say it isn’t so.

Now some of you might think “what’s the big deal.” Accidents happen. After all, didn’t you hear about what happened over at Channel 9 with the Howard Stern prank? But that would be missing the point. (Meanwhile, check out the video of the KCAL 9 epic “trust but verify” fail here.)

It’s incumbent upon us as broadcasters to first get the story right. For in the end no one remembers who got it first but they always remember who got it wrong.

As for my rookie move: It could have been avoided by adhering to rule #1 in our business: verify the source. I had never heard the now infamous Northridge scanner tape. But everyone else sure had, as noted by the endless calls flying in and social media ripping me a new one. If I had played it for just one or two others or reached out to my law enforcement partners it would have never happened.

And in the end, it shouldn’t have happened. Period. It made all of us look less than on top of our game. Fortunately, I have a forgiving PD and host and I also know how to forgive myself.

The highs of producing breaking news are indeed fulfilling. But the lows can be painful.

No doubt a damn good producer gets it right and gets it first. And when you do there is no greater feeling. You are reminded why you love this business! But in the end it’s only worth it when you get it right. Not hard to do when you follow a simple rule: trust but verify.


Brian Holt is an RLC Talent Coach and Executive Producer for KFI/Los Angeles.

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