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.