29 February 2012

Death of the deadline


Image via digitalcitizen.ca
Getting beat by a competitor with a breaking news story is part of being a journalist. It toughens you, whittles you down to your sharpest point, and fills you with fire to not let it happen again. 

When it happens with other stories — ones that might have taken months or even years to develop — the result is embarrassment. Why didn’t I see that? We might think. 

Few would argue that speed is not a driving value in the modern newsroom. But how important is speed when it comes to publishing news? Should accuracy suffer on account of speed? 

Traditionally, news was deadline-driven and only television or radio could break news in real-time. With the net, anyone with a connection can break news as it happens. This has essentially eliminated the need for a deadline, as news stories are often posted as they are written, with edits and updates amended as necessary. At the very latest, a news story will go live the day after it is written. Any longer than that and you risk being scooped. 

Sure we might still write to a deadline, or have a target for finishing a story. But the fluid nature of online news allows for constant updates and amendments and corrections and even conversations through the comments. Is an online story ever truly finished?

So rather than drive ourselves to be accurate, the rising tendency is to get it first and fix it later if it's wrong.

Being first might not be as important to the public as it is to journalists. A recent survey commissioned by Craig Newmark’s craigconnects.org revealed that only 6% of respondents said that being the first to report a story is the most important characteristic when it comes to choosing news sources during election coverage. An overwhelming majority, 49%, chose trustworthiness as the prime motivating factor. 

These days, the temptation to break news can be stronger than the impetus to be accurate. This is evident in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Arizona, when it was reported she had died, then major news organizations, such as the New York Times and Reuters, simply changed their story or deleted tweets without acknowledging they had reported incorrectly, as Steve Safran and others later noted.  

Hasty reporting can even be dangerous, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Noor Kahloon. "Every news is not breaking news, but the 'Breaking News' fashion has out-caste the research and investigation attitude from journalism in Pakistan," Kahloon writes on the jang.com.pk website. "The race to be the first to break the news is promoting sensationalism and painting the country’s image more gloomier. Media, instead of being agenda setter, has become agenda follower of the power elite."

Newspaper Death Watch inspired an interesting conversation when it posted a story by Patch’s Framingham, Mass., website about a man who died in a car accident. The Patch reporter listed a number of unnamed sources who claimed the man might have been drunk when he crashed, and that his girlfriend was pregnant. The Patch reporter sourced radio stations, tweets and comments on Patch’s website in his story. The police had not responded to phone calls, so all information was from outside sources.

Below this story, Newspaper Death Watch posted a story covering the same incident but written by Metrowest Daily News, and posted 10 hours after Patch’s version. The differences are stark. Patch got the dead man’s name wrong, did not include his address or his age, and all its sources were from supposed “friends” and it’s not clear how Patch verified them as legitimate sources. 

The Metrowest story was straight from the police report — dry, fact-based and official-sounding. The who, what, when, where and why all wrapped into the first sentence. The only source was a police officer. Patch’s work, while full of reporting errors, added voices and color that the newspaper did not. However, this action effectively shifted the burden of sourcing onto the Patch reporter. If the man was not drunk, Patch risked being labeled as an untrustworthy or sensational news source, or worse, it could be sued for libel. The newspaper was safe because it attributed its information to the police. 

Paul Gillin, the Death Watch website curator, noted in the comment section that sourcing is all about trust. “If you’re going to play fast and loose with sourcing, you’d better be confident in your sources, because once you have a track record of unreliability, it’s very hard to get that trust back,” Gillin writes.  

A close examination of online content seems to indicate how speed has trumped accuracy as a core journalistic value. The Twitter and Patch examples above are what happens when speed drives reporting — details are lost, attribution is vague, truth is misrepresented. All in the name of breaking the story. Isn’t getting it right more important than getting it first?  

News that is published after the breaking story gives the second reporter time to fill in the holes left by the initial report. There’s no sense in writing the same story, so we often try to tell it from a different angle, or with more emphasis in certain areas. Inevitably, the breaking story puts the subject in the light, but later stories have an opportunity to put the subject under a stronger lens.  

That’s not to say speed is not a value. As Poynter Institute’s Julie Moos says, “Speed kills, but slowness is a painful death of its own.” Speed is valuable if the story makes it valuable. A car accident that’s backing up traffic. A fire that’s spreading. A storm that’s tearing through town. If people’s lives or livelihoods depend on information fast, then we as journalists owe them that speed. 

Speed should be balanced with accuracy. “[T]he slower you are to the news,” Moos writes, “the higher the bar on originality. If you’re late — even by 15 minutes — you better be great.” 

However, in the case of Patch, what was the true value of getting the story out there first, at the expense of getting the man’s name wrong? Was it solely to be “in the conversation,” to get linked-to on Facebook and retweeted by the dead man’s “friends”? Surely the people close to the deceased would know what happened, and it would be a shame for them to learn of the incident through a news article. 

This tendency is exacerbated by the “video game” mentality preached by prominent media folks, such as Joe Wiesenthal, deputy editor at Business Insider. “There are plenty of smart and thoughtful people out there who take their time and say something reasoned,” Wiesenthal told The Atlantic Wire,but what's really hard is the video game: Getting it fast but also being smart.” 

While I agree that being fast and smart are fine qualities in a journalist, and I respect Mr. Wiesenthal's oeuvre, I have little desire to participate in a profession where my colleagues compare their work methods to a video game. Sure journalism can be fun, but we are increasingly losing the public’s trust, as indicated in numerous surveys (here and here). No serious doctor or lawyer or judge or peace officer would compare their work to a video game. Why would journalists?

So what is it that drives journalists to be first? Is it ego? Or is it a desire to serve the public? Maybe a little bit of both?

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