Tag Archives: verification

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

Building “Verification Communities”

Bill and I at my CCJ going away party in 2005My mentor, friend, and former boss at the Committee of Concerned Journalists, Bill Kovach (this is he and I at my CCJ going away party in 2005), came to talk to a lunchtime gathering of the Missouri Journalism School today about the future of news. Nobody can articulate big thoughts about journalism the way that Bill can, but I will do my best to report on some of his comments here. As Dean Mills put it at the end of the session, if you don’t get food for thought when Bill engages you in a conversation, you are officially brain dead. And if you are me, you get pretty FIRED UP all over again about journalism. (As if I really needed extra help on that front…)

The author of the Elements of Journalism pointed out that the real crisis in journalism is not apathy or poor content, as some believe. The demand for truthful information — which, at it’s most fundamental level, is what journalism is all about — is skyrocketing, as is the effort to produce it. People are consuming ever-larger quantities of information; bloggers are grappling with many of the questions journalists have long dealt with, such as the role independence from faction plays in credibility and how to establish an adequate chain of evidence behind a fact. As Bill put it, we are in the seemingly unlikely situation in which capitalism is behind the intellectual content. Advertisers haven’t figured out how to sell products in new media, and the ability to effectively monetize news has thus suffered. Numbers in this year’s State of the Media report back him up — it’s the decoupling of news and advertising, not a dearth of traffic on news sites, that is causing the problems we are seeing throughout the industry.

Bill’s prescription for dealing with this situation is to essentially start thinking of journalism as more of a conversation and starting to build what he called “verification communities” in which readers would be partners with journalists in establishing the accuracy of information. In Bill’s view, which I strongly share, journalism is not defined by institutions or even by a skill set (although the skills can be valuable), but by a set of principles or values. He says we need to start thinking more broadly: the game is no longer just about increasing circulation or Web traffic, it’s about building community, much like American Public Media has done with its Public Insight Journalism. As this community grows stronger, journalists can teach bloggers some useful skills about news gathering honed over years of experience and education, and bloggers can harness their own backgrounds and expertise and time to help journalists produce more accurate and comprehensive news that will make communities better and inform public decision-making.

What I love most about this concept of “verification communities,” which is vintage Bill, is that he has managed to effectively capture the best of what both citizens and professional journalists have to offer in a way that transcends the labels “citizen journalist” and “mainstream media” that are hurled back and forth between critics of each as though they were epithets. He has put the focus squarely where it belongs: on the values, and what really matters, which is truth.

He is also quick to point out that transparency will be a huge part of this effort. Readers will know if a citizen blogger has made a contribution to Obama’s campaign. What we don’t know, as well as what we know, will go into the stories. People will have a richer and greater understanding in this verification community of how the news they are reading is produced and thus how much weight they should give it.

Though he professes not to know exactly how the economics of all this will work out, Bill believes that switching this mindset to seeing readers not as the problem but as the source of everything we need will, ultimately, change the tide. One possibility he mentioned was citizen-financed investigative projects, noting that, for example, perhaps some of the Barack and Hillary donors might be willing to give $5 for journalism they cared about. A student in the audience then noted that people who are accustomed to getting news for free won’t pay newspapers to tell them which vacuum cleaner works better, to which Bill asked, well, what if it was a story about how the University of Missouri was mismanaging your tuition dollars? The student readily agreed that was worth the price of a burrito at Chipotle. Point made.

I urge all of you that were there, and those of you who were not, to comment!


Filed under Transparency