After reading The New York Times article The F.B.I. Criticizes the News Media After Several Mistaken Reports of an Arrest, I believe the trend of “report now, apologize later” is definitely a violation of the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. The first fundamental truth in the SPJ’s Code of Ethics is to “Seek Truth and Report It” (SPJ, 2014). The first line of this section includes the word “accurate” for a reason. Accuracy is the pillar upon which all reporting must be judged. If an organization fails to report accurately, what good are they to the general public? During my time at NBCNews.com we missed the ability to be first with information many times, but that was due to the request from our editors to verify, verify and verify again. During moments like the Boston Marathon Bombings and the Supreme Court’s ruling on healthcare, those extra moments of confirmation saved our staff embarrassing moments and retractions.
The few media organizations I’ve worked for all had a rule of three. It was necessary to get multiple sources in order to move forward on a piece of information. I think this can frustrate reporters who trust their sources very much – but look at the danger of trusting one or two sources alone. The monumental task of three-person confirmation is supposedly necessary to avoid a misstep in reporting. In the Times article, we see that CNN had three sources and STILL got it wrong. The question of whether we should hold the media to a higher standard of verification before publication is an interesting one. Perhaps if there was a fee or fine for misreporting news that might work, but otherwise I don’t see it happening, and even with a fine I think the reports will still come out like they do.
For those unaware of how these things go down, I’ll provide a quick explainer. There are generally two types of stories: breaking and scheduled. When the Boston Marathon Bombing occurred, the Associated Press newswire began chirping out information to news media all across the country. Everyone had the same tiny bit of info and as anchors took over the local broadcasts, journalists on the scene and in their offices were frantically calling any source they could for more information. This is all done with the best intention, every reporter and editor or producer wants to tell the story right, but they want “the scoop” as well. We live in a field where it’s first or last. So, as reporters begin to confirm events, they start calling others and this continues to hours. Often time’s reporters have unique sources, but in an event like this, most of them are probably reaching out to similar people and of course misinformation can spread this way quite easily. It’s also important to note that the AP provides news to all their subscribers, so if they get a detail wrong, countless media across the world have published it on their websites, or read the contents on their radio or television programs. The second type of story captures the debacle with CNN and Fox News misreporting SCOTUS’s health care ruling. The announcement was known before hand, but of course no one knew what the announcement would be. Media had time to setup on the steps and the reporters were ready to go when their runner appeared with the reading. They had spent weeks, if not months preparing for the ruling. Lined up stories for either verdict and were literally in a foot-race waiting for the results. The sheer desire to be first left many reporters reading the decision paperwork on air. A few misread the decision and poof – it was all over their cable show, the internet, etc. The problem with this was no one knew what the verdict would be – so the guests were prepared to discuss a ruling for or against. Once the reporter broke the decision, the cable sites would begin discussing. It was only as pundits were following social media that they learned the ruling was incorrect. I remember this happening live as I was sitting in the NBC politics room, watching the Fox News coverage. The reporter off-camera was following SCOTUSblog.com and soon it became obvious their team wasn’t having the same discussion as the other networks. The conversation turned to “conflicting reports” and soon they had spun it to the correct verdict and were off and running as if nothing happened a few minutes later.
These mistakes are serious though. What if someone only heard the incorrect reading of the verdict and then turned off the television and went about their day misinformed? In June of 2005 the BBC put out a new guideline determining that accuracy was more important than speed. The agency warned of getting into speed contests with competitors, saying it can lead to unnecessary errors (Fergus Sheppard, 2005).
I feel the onus is on us – the public – to force media to a higher standard of accuracy. I know firsthand that journalist would rather be paid to tell accurate stories then to be constantly competing with varying degrees of trustworthy information to get out the gate first. The sad truth is that we live in a world of immediacy. We want information the second it’s available, sooner if we can get it. And, the public at large seems quick to forgive. As long as the sites are updated, the nightly news and following morning’s papers are correct; the accuracy snafus seem to have never happened. I looked at ratings before and after the healthcare ruling and they were approximately the same. If the public wants more truthful information, they need to use the power of allegiance to get it. When CNN misreported the Boston Bombing and SCOTUS stories, their ratings should have plummeted. Change channels, choose a new online news provider, punish the networks financially and that will effect change. The monster of inaccuracy is a beast that resides at the intersection of speed and technology.
Carter, B. (2013, April 17). The F.B.I. Criticizes the News Media After Several Mistaken Reports of an Arrest. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/business/media/fbi-criticizes-false-reports-of-a-bombing-arrest.html?_r=0
Fergus Sheppard, m. c. (2005, Jun 23). Put accuracy before speed on breaking news, BBC staff told. The Scotsman Retrieved from http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/327145722?accountid=3783
Society of Professional Journalists. (2014). Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp