Not all facts are created equal when news breaks

Executive editorDecember 23, 2012 

Get it right, but get it first, but get it right.

A television news producer once told me he was trying to foster that notion in his reporters. What he didn’t want was the opposite: Get it first, but get it right, but get it first.

The tension between first and right played out over and over in the early reporting on the shootings Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn.

A number of media analysts weighed in last week on the large number of reporting mistakes made on the day of the shooting. Among them were the shooter’s name, the way he entered the building and the connection (or lack of one) between his mother and Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Some wrote it off as the new way of doing news. Bits of information and misinformation swarm through social media and the internet. Eventually the facts rise to the top. Readers should learn to expect it.

Indeed, these kinds of stories have always bred some amount of misinformation. On Sept. 11, 2001, reports mistakenly had bombs going off and additional planes crashing.

In the dozen years since, the pace of breaking news has created even more chaos. It’s moved far beyond the pace of a daily newspaper, which gave reporters and editors all day to perfect a story. It’s even quicker than in 2001, when 24-hour cable news channels tried to beat one another with report after report after report.

Nowadays, anyone with a cellphone can jump into the mix, pass along information, twist it, comment on it, analyze it and spit it back to the world through Twitter or Facebook – all at warp speed. Millions are on standby, demanding a new nugget of “news” every few seconds.

It’s easy to say now we’d rather get it right than first. It’s more difficult when the news is breaking.

Getting it right sometimes requires restraint, taking the time to verify information before publishing it. However, restraint is not generally rewarded in the news business. We all want to be the place readers turn to when they hear about an event. We earn that right by reliably having a story up when they come to us. When we don’t, they go somewhere else.

Craig Silverman, who writes about journalism accuracy on his blog “Regret the Error,” offered another thought last week. In addition to encouraging restraint, he urged journalists to be transparent about what they’re reporting, what they aren’t and why.

“Rather than remaining silent about what they refuse to report, or cannot verify, news organizations should be vocal about where they stand,” he wrote. He suggested a news organization could have told its readers: “A Facebook profile is circulating, but we are not confident it is the shooter, and that’s why we are not sharing it.”

That questioning by a trusted source would help readers judge the information they’re seeing elsewhere.

It also allows a newsroom to post something for hungry readers.

It worked for us two years ago after two large booms – origins unknown – cracked across the South Sound sky. With half a dozen reporters scrambling to determine the cause, we issued a breaking-news alert. It didn’t speculate a cause, but said simply: Yes, we heard them, too. We don’t know what they were, but we’re working to find out.

Our online traffic soared with readers coming back to us, eventually learning they were sonic booms from airplanes racing to provide security for President Barack Obama in Seattle. Readers seemed to appreciate both our restraint and our transparency.

We must be vigilant about accuracy, even as we strive to be first. Our credibility is still our most valuable asset, especially in this new sea of information alternatives. When The News Tribune says it, we want it to be so.

The modern-day news ecosystem requires much of journalists, but it also requires much of news consumers. Beyond consuming information, they must judge its worthiness.

Especially during a breaking news event, not all “facts” are created equal. Quotes from a person who saw what happened are the most reliable. Information from an anonymous source is not as reliable as information from a person who will put his or her name to it. Speculation, opinion and information dished out with no attribution at all are suspect.

Readers would do well to consider the quality of the information they’re consuming before believing it or passing it along as fact. Be skeptical. Be demanding.

Sometimes, be patient.

And after it’s all over, remember which journalists had the instinct to get it right, but get it first, but get it right.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434

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