When it comes to breaking news, most would agree getting the story right trumps reporting it first.
Many times this can be a tall – and stressful – order.
Take, for example, the 2011 shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. This case recently came up during a Poynter Institute webinar on new ethics for news managers.
Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs with Poynter and co-editor of “The New Ethics of Journalism,” brought up how NPR reported that Giffords had died in the shooting.
NPR consistently sent this information out over many platforms, McBride said.
Several news agencies picked up on it. But for nearly an hour, the information was incorrect.
One Associated Press editor called NPR to verify the information and wasn’t satisfied with the response. So he was forced to decide: Report what his competitors already had released or wait to allow his reporters to verify the information. He chose to wait 15 minutes.
“Several [reporters] came back after 15 minutes and said, ‘Our sources are telling us the exact opposite – that she’s in surgery and alive,’” McBride said.
In the case of breaking news, there’s going to be a lot of bad information proliferated by the circumstances we now face – a highly competitive, 24-hour news cycle with instant publication of information and not a lot of time to make decisions.
But the consequences of getting things wrong are significant, not only to your credibility, but also to your audience.
The moral of this story: Allow yourself more time to make better decisions.
So how does a news manager do that?
McBride identified the five building blocks for an ethical foundation:
- Principles. Figure out what your principles are in your newsroom. A general common agreement is important; everyone has to be on the same page.
- Journalistic purpose. For every act, you want to have a journalistic purpose. This can include holding the powerful accountable, entertaining readers, or just being the document of record.
- Questions. When you ask genuine questions, you force people to think about the process and where you are in it.
- Alternatives. The more alternatives you can identify in a process, the more likely you’ll be able to surface an alternative that will uphold your journalistic purpose and address your ethical concerns.
- Solutions. You want to make sure your solution addresses your journalistic purpose.
“If you can root yourself in this process, you’re much more likely to be more effective at creating a culture of ethical decisions and growing healthy decision-makers,” McBride said.