“Report now, apologize later.” Four words that make any news director squirm. As they should.

But guess who doesn’t squirm, not even a little? The ad sales guys. It’s all about the benjamins baby, all about the benjamins.

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A pretty smart succinct guy named Dr. Anthony Curtis from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke explains the relationship very clearly when he writes in part:

A commercial medium wants to sell ad space or time. To make that sale they need to be able to tell potential advertisers that their messages on the air, in print, or on the monitor screen will be viewed and heard by large numbers of consumers.

It’s the money, honey. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Imagine that.

The question at hand is whether or not “report now, apologize later” aka R.N.A.L. is a violation of the SPJ’s code of ethics for professional journalists.

Can’t be answered without understanding the motive and intent.

Sounds like closing arguments in a jury trial, doesn’t it? I believe that we need to judge the ethics involved in the live reporting of breaking news differently than we judge other reporting precisely because of the motives and intent involved in covering it.

breaking newsWhen live news is truly breaking in real time (not the faux breaking news that happened hours ago and is merely labeled as “breaking”) the journalistic intent is to inform quickly and accurately.

So the standard that we use as an ethical measuring stick for accuracy can be temporarily lowered in the interest of the speed needed to inform the public about potential danger. Note that I’m using the word temporarily in combination with potential danger.

When the FBI scolds the AP, the Boston Globe, CNN & FOX News about the mistaken identification of a suspect (Carter, B. April 17, 2013) I think the Bureau was out of line, at least as far as an ethics violation is concerned.

The reporting itself was driven by speed, timeliness and potential danger. According to Bill Carter’s story (2013) the reporters were getting info from their sources. For my money the motive was pure.

The news outlets were not intentionally behaving unethically in their reporting. They also met the SPJ’s (2014) transparency test in explaining who was confirming the info though perhaps they could have gone further in explaining fully who was NOT confirming.  Either way, FBI scolding aside this doesn’t constitute an ethical breakdown.

That doesn’t mean that “report now, apologize later” is ethical in all instances. It isn’t.

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When the Clinton campaign scolds the venerable New York Times for a rush to publication (Flores, R. July 31, 2015) they were spot on. The story about a criminal probe into Clinton’s email servers did NOT involve public safety or danger. The scolding was definitely warranted  because the NYT did fail the SPJ ethics (2014) test.

If the speed to publish is merely a competitive pressure then the SPJ accuracy test should be stringently adhered to. The New York Times had all of the necessary time to publish the correct information, including a correct headline.

The NYT apology (Flores, R. July 31, 2015) says it all:

Citing senior government officials, the newspaper of record initially published a story last Thursday detailing a State Department’s and Intelligence Community’s Inspectors General request for a criminal probe of Clinton. The Times later corrected the story and altered its headline to reflect that the referral did not specifically target Hillary Clinton. A Justice Department official also confirmed to CBS News that the request was not a “criminal referral.”

Since publishing the story, the Times has issued multiple corrections. Margaret Sullivan, the newspaper’s public editor, also wrote a column delving into the problems with the Times’ report, calling it “a messy and a regrettable chapter” and advising the Times to practice “Less speed. More transparency.”

Umm yeah. The Times screwed up big time. Not transparent. Not accurate. Not ethical. Glass house much?

Is it reasonable to expect top notch accurate well-sourced evidence to verify ALL information before it is reported to us? Well sure. And when did you stop beating your wife?

I may not be the best person to ask that question in that I’m an odd journalistic duck – both purist and pragmatist.

I graduated from journalism school in the Watergate era for God’s sake. I hold accuracy dear. And any purist would argue that we should ALWAYS deliver only the most accurate information. Always and exclusively. The SPJ (2014) itself says:

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

OTOH the pragmatist in me points out that we live in a world where the open sourced users of Reddit are now breaking news with and on cell phones. Steve Buttry nails it when he says that the code of ethics for journalists should be updated for the digital age. You can read his thoughts here:

https://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/journalists-code-of-ethics-time-for-an-update/

We can’t go all judgey on the AP and The Boston Globe without considering the community of Reddit users (Abad-Santos, A. April 22, 2013) as a part of this story and Reddit’s impact on the speed and accuracy of breaking news in the story of the bombing suspects.

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You may remember that Reddit and the community open-sourced users on subreddit played an integral role in identifying the Boston Marathon bombing suspects when the online community joined in the search for suspects. This level of user involvement and it’s movement at warp speed are typical of redefined citizen journalism (Kovach and Rosentiel, Blur. 2010)  If CNN, The AP, BuzzFeed, HuffPo and the like can’t keep up they will lose users – then revenue – then life.

And here is the rub. Who is to blame for this trend? Should we demand more from our news agencies, or are we, with our desire for immediate knowledge, the culprit?

Guilty as charged, the consumers are the problem. ‘Fraid so. It’s us. We have created this monster.

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We have a voracious appetite for immediate information. We consume news on every platform and every device. In almost real time. We may not trust ’em, but we use the hell out of them. As long as we continue to reward news agencies with our subscriptions, our likes, our shares and our re-tweets, regardless of their respective adherence to SPJ’s (2014) code of ethics…we are culpable.

It’s the benjamins. Reporting important news fast and first is profitable because it drives usage. Usage numbers drive subscriptions and ad dollars. That’s just math. Accuracy and ethics take a back seat to benjamins.

But as usual I remain glass-half-full. In one form or fashion this “Report Now. Apologize Later” has been going on for a long time (Greenfield, R. Sept. 16, 2013) and it has at least one hidden benefit…corrections are faster too!

Mistakes have happened in breaking news reporting for decades. While Twitter might spread these false bits of information faster than a telegraph, it also has the benefit of correcting those errors faster than ever before.

Just for fun I’m going to end here on a musical note because I’ve been thinking that Elton John was wrong. Sorry does NOT seem to be the hardest word.

References:

Curtis, A. February 24, 2012. Mass Media Influence On Society. Retrieved from http://homes.ieu.edu.tr/~gkaranfil/MCS160/24.02.2014/Mass_Media_Influence_on_Society.pdf

Carter, B. April 17, 2013. The FBI Criticizes False reports of a Bombing 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=1

Society of Professional Journalists. (2014). SPJ Code of Ethics. Society of Professional Journalists. Retrieved from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Flores, R. July 31, 2015. Clinton Campaign Slams New York Times for Egregious Reporting Errors. CBS.com. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cbsnews.com/news/clinton-campaign-slams-new-york-times-for-egregious-reporting-errors/

Buttry S. November 7, 2010. WordPress. Retrieved from: https://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/journalists-code-of-ethics-time-for-an-update/

Abad-Santos, A. April 22, 2013 Reddit Find Boston Bombers Founder Interview. The Wire. Retrieved from: http://www.thewire.com/national/2013/04/reddit-find-boston-bombers-founder-interview/64455/

Reddit About. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/about/

Kovach, B., and Rosenstiel, T. (2010). How to Find What Really Matters Blur. pp. 147 – 169. New York: Bloomsbury

Greenfield, R.Sept. 16, 2013. Media Was Always Bad at Reporting Breaking News. The Wire. Retrieved from:http://www.thewire.com/national/2013/09/media-was-always-bad-reporting-breaking-news-brief-history/69464/

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