There’s no debating that websites and social media have made it easier to track breaking news as it happens. We saw that clearly with the tweets and photos around the Asiana Airlines crash earlier this year.
However, this immediacy also places pressure on the media to break news significantly faster than before – measured in minutes and seconds, 24/7.
In just the last year, Hurricane Sandy, Newtown and the Boston Marathon have demonstrated how our constant demand for immediate news can lead to misinformation.
With misinformation sometimes having serious consequences, the debate repeatedly comes up:
Which is more important: Getting news out first or getting it right?
Speed versus accuracy is an issue that affects all news organizations – from local media to the likes of the AP, The New York Times and CNN. And it’s not a new concern. Prior to social media, organizations had to adjust to the challenges of online news in the 90s and 24-hour cable news before that.
But with the ability to immediately post something on social media, how are journalists adapting to an even faster news cycle?
Accuracy = Credibility
Media’s value comes from how credible the news source is, and reporting the news accurately has historically been a key factor in credibility.
When a newsroom makes a mistake, trust is broken and the relationship damaged. Depending on the mistake, there can even be an economic impact from the loss of subscribers and advertisers.
Many newsrooms use the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics to preserve credibility. Its concepts of seeking truth, being judicious, acting independently and holding oneself accountable are drilled into journalists’ heads in school.
Although no one is perfect, audiences and other journalists are less understanding when a news organization doesn’t own up to an error or makes a mistake because it was more important to break the news first instead of verify it.
When the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act in 2012, two cable news leaders incorrectly reported the Court’s ruling.
In “Getting News Fast and Wrong,” Kate Culver, Associate Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics, argued that their mistakes were avoidable since these organizations had advance access to resources which could have helped them check their interpretation.
Unlike smaller organizations such as SCOTUSblog who correctly read the ruling’s summary, some newsrooms’ desire to be faster than their competition overran the need to be precise.
Culver says it’s not just a question of ethics, but with audience fragmentation and other issues facing journalists, “They have a fiscal interest to retain their credibility and differentiate themselves from the waves of information, misinformation and disinformation that pound digital media shores.”
Adapting to an Evolving Process
After the Boston Marathon, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi interviewed media observers about the mistakes that had been reported around the bombing.
Many said that although mistakes should be avoided, they may no longer be as consequential thanks to the media’s ability to immediately self-correct on social media and online.
Reporting news during unfolding events has always been a chaotic practice. The difference now is that social media has opened up a wider view to a previously behind-the-scenes process. Today the public can watch the gathering and verification of rumors as they develop into news stories.
It also gives everyone an opportunity to participate in the process. In a talk at April’s International Symposium for Online Journalists, NPR’s Andy Carvin stressed that news organizations should use social media and other tools not just for promoting the latest headlines.
Instead, when a story breaks, media “should be more transparent about what we know and don’t know. We should actively address rumors being circulated online. Rather than pretending they’re not circulating, or that they’re not our concern, we should tackle them head-on, challenging the public to question them, scrutinize them, understand where they might have come from, and why.”
That means replying to tweets as events happen by asking questions and helping the public understand how to properly confirm information.
By approaching it as a two-way flow of information, media can still respond to unfolding events but wait until they have the substantiated story before providing a report. Similarly, the public can contribute to the reporting process and be patient with a work in progress.
Tools Helping Journalists be Accurate and Fast
Although the Internet has added to the pressures of getting news out fast, online tools can benefit journalists when used in line with their code of ethics:
- Josh Stearns, the Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director at Free Press, recently launched Verification Junkie, a growing directory of fact-checking tools and sites.
- HootSuite’s white paper 3 Ways Social Media Command Centers Improve Newsrooms offers up techniques that any newsroom can leverage.
- PR Newswire works closely with journalists and bloggers to provide them with the news they need, when they need it. By registering for PR Newswire for Journalists, media can access press releases, multimedia and subject matter experts to meet pressing deadlines.
No one wants to be wrong, but the reporting process is changing and each organization needs to communicate what their priority is: Whether that’s responding early and updating on the fly, or waiting until they’ve confirmed the facts and not worrying about the scoop.
Once a news organization decides on their approach and follows it consistently, social media and other online resources don’t have to be viewed as a source of stress.
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