It’s Jan. 8, 2011, and the fictional journalists in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama series “The Newsroom” are reporting a real-life event. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others have just been shot in the parking lot of an Arizona grocery store.
One-by-one, other news outlets announce that Giffords died from her wounds, and the “News Night” television crew has a decision to make: Will they follow suit, without confirmation from a source at the hospital?
“Every second you’re not current, a thousand people are changing the channel to the guy who is,” screams the network president from the sidelines.
But the hotshot anchor goes the moral route, and present-day viewers know that it’s the right call. Giffords survived. The make-believe journalists wait for verification and avoid an embarrassing public apology.
Critics may call the show naïve and preachy, but this particular scene illustrates an ethical quandary that real media groups encounter regularly: Is fact checking a priority in the 24-hour news cycle?
Consumers expect immediate access to information. The latest headlines are just a click or cable channel flip away. Text message alerts promulgate breaking news instantaneously.
In the meantime, traditional print journalism is in danger of extinction, and nobody’s quite sure how to make money on the web. The pressure is on, and being fast—ideally first—to publish the latest scoop is a major goal in the competitive news industry.
Does that pressure excuse NPR, Reuters, CNN and all the others that falsely announced Giffords demise?
Such missteps are not uncommon. Last December, Fox News, The Huffington Post and Slate were among the multiple news organizations that incorrectly identified the gunman responsible for the Newtown, Conn. elementary school shooting.
Breaking news stories aren’t the only setting for factual error, and speed isn’t the only justification.
In January, an online piece in The Guardian derided Western consumption of imported quinoa for contributing to malnutrition and poverty in South America. It elicited more than a thousand reader comments and went viral in the blogosphere within days. Big-name news sites like Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail and Yahoo! News picked up the story.
But readers and news organizations condemned the piece for being slanted. The author failed to mention the other side of the story, and didn’t explain how Bolivians and Peruvians benefit from the quinoa craze.
Measured in page views, the feature was a success for The Guardian. Even its controversial, one-sided angle generated buzz—as the saying goes, any press is good press. If the facts are wrong or imbalanced, they’ll still draw in an audience. Perhaps the 24-hour news cycle isn’t wholly to blame for errors, and sometimes good old-fashioned sensationalism is the perpetrator.
Failing to fact check both sides of the story means sacrificing accuracy and objectivity, two pillars of the journalistic code.
“Whatever the medium, we tell our audiences the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it,” states The New York Times’ ethics policy.
Many media organizations rely on their reporters to confirm accuracy before submitting a story for publication or broadcast. Exact protocol varies, but generally information is supposed to be verified by at least two independent and reliable sources.
Back in the day, many news companies had the luxury of fact checking departments, but most were cut in the late 1990s. Today, Time magazine, The New Yorker and a few others still bankroll employees who are devoted solely to fact checking. These staffers are responsible for notoriously rigorous, time-consuming verification processes, but even they make mistakes.
Let’s assume that the majority of media outlets have good intentions. They strive to ensure that their content is always accurate, but the pressure created by online media and the 24-hour news cycle gets in the way.
The key word is majority.
At the 2009 Magazine Publishers of America conference, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton didn’t hesitate to admit that his website does not bother to fact check.
“We aim to get the truth over time,” he said. “The verification model is post-publication rather than pre-publication. Our readers correct us and we apologize and we change it. We don’t have time to check it all before.”
Is Gawker paving the way for all news companies? Will its strategy be the norm in the future?
“That’s a terrible model, and I’m afraid it’s becoming more and more like that in the world of journalism,” said Fred Brown, a Denver-based media ethics professor with more than 40 years of reporting experience.
If indeed news providers shift to the Gawker model, readers—and viewers and listeners—will be in charge of discerning right information from wrong. It’s something they should be doing already.
“News consumers have a certain responsibility here too, to pay more attention to the sources that are consistently accurate,” says Brown, who serves on the Society for Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee. “You have a certain obligation to look for truthful sources, not just sources that you agree with or that you think are entertaining.”
It’s easier said than done.
Consider again the Newtown shooter misidentification. The news organizations that reported the wrong name explained afterward that a law enforcement source gave them the incorrect information. In other words, it wasn’t their fault.
“You can excuse a certain amount of that as long as it’s corrected as quickly as possible,” said Brown of breaking news snafus like the one that occurred that morning in Connecticut. “But it would be better to look for at least one other source—not just one police official—to verify what information you’re getting.“
Another option for news reporters: Qualify the statement by acknowledging that the fact hasn’t been confirmed yet. Don’t send a breaking news alert to all of your subscribers broadcasting the shooter’s name, and don’t post the man’s photograph on your publication’s homepage—at least until that second source has come forward. “Show a little restraint,” says Brown.
But when something important happens—be it a national tragedy, highly anticipated election results, or even the moral condemnation of a food trend—it’s likely that consumers won’t hesitate to abandon their go-to news source if it fails to deliver the information promptly.
There’s a concept in business called the project management triangle. Each vertex of the triangle represents a limitation: “speed,” “quality” and “cost.” Associates can prioritize only two of the three opposing features when executing a task.
It’s easy to apply the theory to modern-day journalism: A paper or cable network with the resources to verify information will quickly produce high-caliber, trustworthy news, but it probably won’t be cheap. Or, they can cut costs and still be the first to report a story. But the result might not be factually true.
The fictional crew on “The Newsroom” forfeited speed in favor of the truth, and viewers of the HBO show witnessed little repercussion for that decision. But in the real world, the future of fact checking doesn’t follow that storyline.
Nora Dunne is a freelance writer and full-time editor whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Metro newspapers and Kirkus Reviews. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.