Getting It Right AND Getting It Fast

As our news cycle accelerates to warp speed with the rise of Twitter and other always-on social networking devices, there is considerable hand-wringing among the responsible journalist and academic communities.

Is our rush-to-publish mentality spreading rumor and falsehood and eroding our core values?

I’d say maybe not, or the more classic academic “it depends.”  I’m in agreement with Jake Sherlock, assistant professor at the University of Missouri and Columbia Missourian editor, in a thoughtful post he wrote about immediacy and accuracy, here.

Jake writes about a sports reporter who found out what bowl game Mizzou would be playing in via the Twitter account of one of the top players three hours before it was officially announced by the university. There was spirited debate in the newsroom as to whether that information should be published or even retweeted until it was confirmed elsewhere.

I agree with Jake that there’s nothing wrong with retweeting this information and telling readers what you know, how you know it, and that you are currently seeking confirmation. When you have confirmation or lack thereof, change the story immediately.

As I tell my students nearly every day, getting it right is the MOST important thing we do. In fact, that’s a reoccurring quiz question  throughout the semester – I want that phrase emblazoned on their brains.  In my view, getting it right should always trump getting it first, but I’m not so sure in the digital age those two things are mutually exclusive.

Really, it comes down to transparency, and letting readers judge for themselves the evidence of truth and falsehood. It strikes me as just a hair patronizing or dismissive of our readers’ intelligence to assume that they can’t handle being part of the sometimes messy news process.  For example, there was some consternation when it turned out that most major news organizations were wrong and the Fort Hood shooter was still alive. I’m not sure I was harmed by the fact that these news organizations cited a presumably reliable source in reporting that he was dead, and then later widely corrected themselves. It’s not ideal, but now we aren’t doing all of our work behind closed doors, hiding in the shadows anymore. Verification is a public project, and often it’s all the better for it because it gives others more and faster ways to correct us.

Now, obviously, there are some stories, particularly those that might damage someone’s reputation, in which it makes sense to not publish until every last detail has been nailed down. However, even in those cases, if every other media outlet is running with the rumors, it actually might make more ethical and journalistic sense to let the readers know that the claims they may have heard elsewhere are unverified but that you are working on the story. That tells them a lot about your process and your concern for the truth and also makes it clear what is rumor and what is not in a world where that’s getting harder to differentiate. This isn’t a new idea or unique to me; it’s one of the things Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel discuss in the book Elements of Journalism.

Finally, being part of the news and verification process is exciting. It gives you a feeling of ownership in what is produced,and maybe it could help us to build engagement with our communities. Maybe it’s just because I’m a former journalist, but I find myself glued to Twitter when there is breaking news because it reminds me a little bit of that buzz you get working in the newsroom when something big goes down – people are asking questions, trying to determine what is known, sharing tidbits, etc. Nobody pretends to have all the answers but everybody is trying to nail them down.


Filed under News routines and processes

4 responses to “Getting It Right AND Getting It Fast

  1. grovesprof

    Another thoughtful analysis, Brown. Call me old-fashioned, but I fall into the camp of verify before tweeting. I think saying, “I’ve heard this, but I’m checking it out,” puts information out there, and people read it as fact, especially if a number of news organizations are reporting the same unverified information. They tend to miss the “still checking this out” the way they mentally skip “innocent until proven guilty” in stories about criminal charges. And there’s always the risk of someone retweeting you without the disclaimer.

  2. changingnewsroom


    Hee, well, I’ll call you old-fashioned then. 😉 Yeah, I mean in cases of criminal charges there are obviously greater legal and ethical concerns and one has to be more careful. This is a case-by-case thing.

    Sometimes I go Lippman, but this time I’ll go Dewey and say that it underestimates peoples intelligence that they can’t understand the “still checking out” thing. Or, maybe they ARE lacking in intelligence, but is it our job to paternalistically protect them from certain kinds of information, or is it to share information in as clear and complete way as possible so they can judge for themselves what to think? I’d argue the latter.

  3. Nice work, Brown. It’s surprising how this is maybe the first time I’ve heard the argument that maybe it’s okay to present the news you’ve got so long as you’re 1) clear where it came from, and 2) upfront with the correction if it doesn’t play out. Transparency has to come before and after the fact if that’s the way we’re gonna play.

    Is there, one could ask, risk of news becoming a rumor mill? My ethics students surprised me by having no problem with running “deleted scenes” every Friday – a grab bag of rumors and dubious tips all labeled as such – because the label was clear and they’re smart enough to judge for themselves. Maybe there’s value to incorporating a clearinghouse role – rather than gatekeepers, maybe we become shepherds.

  4. changingnewsroom

    Yeah, the way Kovach and Rosenstiel describe it is this: So in the old days, we stood at the gate. If you were a fact, we let you through. If you were a rumor, we banged the door shut. Well now, we are standing at the gate, but there is no fence. The cows are running wild all over the pasture, so to speak, and the rumors are everywhere.

    Make the role of the journalist then is not so much of a gatekeeper, but a sensemaker, or even, if you will a referee. E.g. we will not stop you from going through, but we’ll blow the whistle or throw the penalty flag.

    Also, verification in the new world, I’d say, isn’t ONLY something that happens pre-publication. Like the larger value of “truth” itself, it is something the keeps happening post-publication, as we learn more and more facts or grasp the fullest possible picture of an event. In the end, I think this may actually mean more accurate journalism, although it may take a different form and look different than it does now. For example, check out the Living Stories by Google and the WashPo/NYT and other new models.

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