Balancing urgency with accuracy

(The original version of this entry was written by Angela Hickman)

For journalists, the desire to break a story first has been a driving force for a long time. But, as technology has improved and the realities of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have taken hold, the pressure to fill space and keep stories updated is stronger than ever before. When an audience expects continuously updated coverage, the urgency of a story can get mistaken for the speed at which it can be packaged. As news organizations are offered more avenues to break news more quickly, they are also forced to make more decisions about the completeness and accuracy of the stories they produce: Do they have enough to go ahead with publication or broadcast? Does tweeting a headline before a story has been finished constitute responsible reporting? Does the ability to simply delete an inaccurate story from the Internet make it acceptable to report uncertain facts quickly? These are all questions journalists and editors need to ask themselves every time a story breaks. They also need to consider the consequences of publishing a story before they are certain of all the facts. If, as laid out in the Grant v. Torstar ruling, a media organization does not properly weigh the urgency of the story with its potential inaccuracies, it may lose a libel defense based on responsible communication. But defining the boundaries of what is sufficiently public interest to warrant speedy reporting is not an easy task, especially as social media – and especially Twitter – increasingly becomes a part of how news is delivered to the public. Editors and journalists alike must deal with each story – whether it is a long feature or a 140-character bite – and each story’s facts individually, before deciding how the urgency of a story should be weighed against its accuracy.

What do accuracy and urgency mean?

Accuracy is the result of verification. Rather than trying to determine truth, which is subjective, accuracy is objective. Thus, accuracy speaks to the tangible facts in a story, such as whether the dates and numbers cited are correct, whether there’s any evidence to back-up what a source says, whether quotes are exact in content and attribution, etc. Additionally, context is a necessary component of accuracy. For example, if a quote is taken out of context, its wording may be correct, but it may provide an inaccurate reflection of what the person said. Likewise, balance can have a bearing on accuracy; if, for example, a reporter is covering a trial, both sides need to be covered for the overall report to be accurate. In short, facts that are integral to the story must be accurate for a story to move forward.

In Grant v. Torstar, “the urgency of the matter” is the third item on the list of suggested considerations for a determination of public interest responsible communication. Urgency is based, in part, on the public interest of the story, and how important it is for people to have the information. However, for the urgency of a story to be clear, a journalist must have the integral facts and they must believe that the facts they have are true ­– a suspicion of political scandal is less urgent than a confirmed scandal, for example. Accuracy and urgency therefore go hand in hand because one often determines the other.

Social Media: Facebook and Twitter

It used to be that newspapers were sold by newsboys who yelled the headlines from the side of the road. But, as technology has improved, so too has the way news organizations advertise and disseminate their content. As news organizations work to increase the circulation of their work they must consider Internet traffic as much as they consider the consumer picking up the newspaper or watching the broadcast; in addition to maintaining an up-to-date website, news organizations must also manage their social media. By posting Internet links to their coverage on Facebook and Twitter, news organizations reach a much wider audience than they would by simply publishing a story in the paper (or broadcasting on TV or the radio). In this way, social media widens the audience-base for news organizations and drives traffic to their website.

Facebook, though, offers little opportunity for live coverage of events. Rather, Facebook is a social media site that allows readers to interact with a news organization by expressing their views on its coverage. Facebook also serves as another outlet for content dissemination, and news organizations routinely post links to stories, discussions, forums and events on their Facebook page. News organizations can also solicit opinions and information from their readers through Facebook.

Similarly, Twitter offers a venue for news organizations to publish links to their coverage and solicit reader responses. But Twitter works a bit differently, in that it restricts the length of each post to 140 characters. Twitter also offers news organizations the ability to cover events as they happen, by live-tweeting them. Additionally, the site’s hashtag system – using a hashtag links tweets together to make them searchable, for example, tweets including the hashtag #ColRW link together all the tweets about Colonel Russell Williams – allows news organizations to group their live coverage and make it easy for their audience to find and contribute to it.

Many news organizations have their websites set up such that any article posted to the website is automatically posted to Twitter as well. This means that an article’s publication is more immediately noticeable because not only is it published in the newspaper, for example, and on the paper’s website – where it can be seen by people visiting that site – but it is also on Twitter, where anyone following the news organization’s Twitter feed has access to it as well (for example, the Montreal Gazette’s Twitter account has over 28,000 followers*, all of whom would have immediate access to a Gazette tweet – the New York Times has over two million Twitter followers*). Furthermore, tweets can be re-tweeted by other users, offering another avenue for ever-wider circulation of a story.

But it isn’t just the news organizations that have Twitter accounts; many journalists use Twitter as well, both as a tool to solicit information and as a way to promote themselves, their articles and their interests and opinions. When live-tweeting events – everything from sporting events to films and political debates, etc. – most journalists use their own Twitter account rather than the official one of their news organization. Journalists can have huge Twitter followings, for example: national editor for Maclean’s magazine Andrew Coyne has over 6,000 followers*; former Globe and Mail journalist Matthew Ingram has over 15,000 followers*; and Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s Q has over 27,000 followers*. This means that news organizations are responsible for a great deal more content, much of which is not edited and can be written and posted in seconds.

Kirk LaPointe, managing editor for the Vancouver Sun ­– with over 4,000* and nearly 13,000* Twitter followers, respectively – and member of the Canadian Association of Journalist’s social media panel, told a class of journalism graduate students at Ryerson University that although social media allow for quick publication, that does not mean accuracy ceases to matter: “I don’t think you can have different standards for different platforms,” LaPointe said. “Don’t say ‘It’s only the web,’ because it isn’t only the web. … It’s all a matter of record. It all counts.”

When a news organization publicizes that it will be covering an event live, using Twitter or other live-blogging software, they are taking responsibility for that content. They are also implying that the event has some kind of urgency attached to it, such that it demands immediate attention and cannot wait until the reporter files a full story to his or her editor. But, because of the immediacy of publishing through Twitter, and the space constraint of 140 characters per tweet, providing a factually and contextually accurate report can be challenging.

Accuracy and urgency come to a head in the new media economy; as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel discuss in their book The Elements of Journalism, “from the moment news became a commodity … the process of verification – the beating heart of credible journalism in the public interest­ – came under pressure” (Kovach 80). In the push to publish faster – facilitated largely through the Internet and social media – the definitions of urgency and accuracy can become lost in the pressure to get the story first. As Kovach and Rosenstiel explain, “there are two principal sources of this pressure. The first is the temptation to publish immediately because something could always be corrected later. The second is the impulse to publish news simply because it’s already ‘out there’ in this new media system” (Kovach 80-81).

When the race to break a story comes down to minutes, not days, the importance of a perceived urgency can overtake the need for accuracy. This is precisely what happened when, on Feb. 18, 2010, legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot was pronounced dead and then reported to be alive on Twitter, all within less than 25 minutes. It seemed that, in the rush to report on the reports of his death, no one called either Lightfoot or his management to confirm the story before tweeting about it. This incident is problematic for many reasons, one of the chief ones being that the subject matter of this story did not warrant the urgency it was given, but certainly warranted more efforts at verification and accuracy than it received.

David Akin, who has over 4,900 followers* on Twitter, was working for the Canwest news service when he used Twitter to report on the reports of Lightfoot’s death, tweeting: “Gordon Lightfoot has died, sources close to the singer say.” Later that day, after Lightfoot was revealed to be alive and well, Akin wrote a blog post about the issue. In the post, Akin explained that Lightfoot’s death had been reported as an alert on the Canwest newswire, and that he had simple tweeted their alert: “On a practical level, I simply can't go around confirming for myself that ‘a Canadian soldier was killed in Afghanistan’ or that ‘Ontario police have arrested a male...’. I have to trust my colleagues,” Akin wrote, after explaining that he had tweeted Canwest alerts in the past.

As Gene Foreman writes in his book, The Ethical Journalist, the problem of “speed-versus-verification did not begin with online news” (Foreman 316); rather, it began with wire services pushing to have the first copy available to their subscribers. The difference, though, is that wire news rarely goes immediately into print and can be updated if inaccuracies are found, whereas Twitter posts are published instantly. In this case, where Akin was immediately able to tweet about the Canwest wire story, the double imperative for speed resulted in inadequate verification.

In the CAJ’s “Guidelines for re-tweeting or re-posting information found in social media,” the authors – all members of the CAJ’s social media panel – cite several news organizations’ social media guidelines to examine the issue. The CAJ’s social media panel says that the Associated Press guidelines do not permit the re-tweeting of information that they have not published, or that isn’t verified to their standards of publication: “The implied argument is that a journalist or news organization’s reputation is built on a record of accurate ‘publishing’ – in any form. Being a reliable source of information at all times is paramount. The risk of distributing untrue information threatens an organization’s reputation.”

Unlike news stories, tweets can be difficult to correct, because even if the original tweet has been passed on and re-tweeted to other users, the correction may not be – a problem Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, delves into for the ////Columbia Journalism Review////. The problem of trying to correct viral tweets leaves many people without access to the new or updated information, and Silverman suggests the correction be tweeted several times. When it comes to understanding urgency as it relates to unverified information passed on through Twitter, though, the CAJ panel concludes: “The decision to forward unverified information should always weigh the value of getting information out to the audience quickly with the risk of causing harm.” In essence, Twitter should be treated like any other form of news media, and as LaPointe said when speaking to the Ryerson class, “Slower might mean better.”

Case Study: Tweeting from court

When Russell Williams, former colonel in the Canadian military, pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, two counts each of sexual assault and forcible confinement and 82 break-ins and attempted break-ins, Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Scott made an unprecedented decision. For the first time in Canada, accredited journalists would be permitted to have electronic devices in the courtroom for the purposes of live-coverage. This decision led to journalists tweeting and live-blogging about the evidence and testimonies from the courtroom, including about the gruesome details of Williams’ crimes, his reactions to video footage he made of himself and his victims, and other aspects of the court proceedings.

In the United States, journalists had been given a similar privilege before, including at the recent murder trial of Stephen J. Hayes in Cheshire, Connecticut. On Oct. 5, 2010, after a trial lasting three weeks, Hayes was convicted; the penalty phase of the trial – during which the jury will have to decide whether or not he deserves the death penalty – began on Oct. 18. For both parts of the trial, journalists were present in the courtroom – smart phones, laptops and iPads in hand.

The urgency factor of a high-profile court case is unquestionable. Court proceedings and justice have a high public interest value and as cases unfold, the public needs to be kept informed. In both the case of Williams and of Hayes, the men on trial were accused of murder, as well as other related crimes, and the outcomes of their trials held meaning for the people across their respective countries. Thus, high profile court cases have a natural urgency of both timeliness and public interest.

In terms of accuracy, journalists are permitted to report on court proceedings not covered by a publication ban. This means that the majority of the testimonies and evidence presented in court can be reported on, and considered factually accurate in so far as it came up in court – a journalist is not expected to verify the accuracy of what a witness says, just to give an accurate report of what he or she said. However, as accuracy relates to the issues of context and balance, reporters must be careful when using Twitter or other live-blogging software. For example, covering only evidence presented by the Crown and not the evidence presented by the defence would give an inaccurate account of the trial.

In the Canadian example of the Williams trial, the accused pled guilty. Therefore, journalists did not have another side to cover and the concern for accuracy through context and balance was not an issue. However, in the American example, Hayes was on trial in front of a jury, and more attention to context and balance was needed to ensure the trial was accurately covered.

In both cases, journalists reporting via Twitter were covering a major court case without the oversight of an editor or a lawyer. For an article about the new world of live court-coverage, Toronto Star reporter Antonia Zerbisias spoke to fellow Star reporter Joanna Smith about tweeting from the courtroom and, earlier in the year, from Haiti, where she was a reporter after the February 2010 earthquake. “‘The immediacy of Twitter has a power that both news consumers and journalists are still getting used to harnessing,’” Zerbisias quotes Smith as saying. Smith is further quoted as saying: “‘I think the same dynamics are at play here [in the Russell Williams case, as in Haiti], but the content is so graphic that almost any tweet can blow someone away. We have to respect that, and work hard to check and balance ourselves accordingly.’” Zerbisias explains in her article that Smith had to decide what to tweet “without the usual ‘We can't print that!’ editorial supervision,” which forced her to make her own editorial decisions. As Smith says in the article, she decided on her own to “tone down” some of the graphic details of the trial.

According to a New York Times article, American journalists covering the Hayes case in Connecticut felt similar pressures. As the article by William Glaberson states, “Courts nationally are sharply split on whether to allow cellphones and other electronic devices. ... Around the country, some judges have banned the use of Twitter as prohibited ‘broadcasting’ that could get information to jurors and witnesses they are not supposed to have.”

For the article, Glaberson spoke to Luther Turmelle, a reporter for the New Haven Register who was covering the trial, often as the Register’s Twitter-only reporter. Like Smith, Turmelle felt the pressure of writing without the filter of an editor: “[Turmelle] said that it was sometimes hard to make decisions instantly about what was appropriate to repeat to readers in a trial that featured explicit and disturbing testimony about violence and sexual assaults,” Glaberson wrote.

In these cases, both Smith and Turmelle had to deal with using Twitter to report responsibly. In their cases, although factual accuracy was less of a concern because they were in court, they both had to make decisions with regards to the urgency of what they were hearing – for example, how urgently did the public need to hear the gruesome details of the crimes – and tweet accordingly. Both Smith and Turmelle chose not to tweet some of the more graphic evidence and testimonies, leaving the decision to report that information up to their editors.

Proceeding with awareness

Although social media, and especially Twitter, are more informal in their format for news coverage, journalists who use it should not be. Accuracy should not become less important simply because a tweet is limited to 140 characters and can be published in seconds – as LaPointe told the Ryerson class: “It’s all a matter of record. It all counts.” As news organizations increasingly integrate Twitter into their coverage – using it as more than just a tool for the dissemination for their content – they are also giving that content more weight and implicitly taking more responsibility for what they and their journalists publish on Twitter.

However, being able to report something quickly does not mean the story must be urgently reported. Stories must be weighed individually, to determine whether the confirmed facts – and thus the accuracy of the story, as it exists – warrant expedited reporting or indicate that the story should be held until more facts can be gathered and verified. Although this process may mean waiting a half hour before publishing the story on the Internet and through Twitter, that half hour could be the difference between getting the story right and pronouncing someone dead prematurely. Although the Internet and social media make fast reporting easier, speed is not the same thing as urgency, and urgency can only be determined by accurate reporting.

*Numbers of //Twitter// followers cited here were current as of Oct. 23, 2010.

Works Cited

Akin, David. “Me, Gordon Lightfoot, and Twitter.” David Akin’s On the Hill 18 Feb. 2010 <http://davidakin.blogware.com/blog/_archives/2010/2/18/4459652.html> 24 Oct. 2010

Bruser, Bert et al. “Guidelines for re-tweeting or re-posting information found in social media.” Canadian Association of Journalists 7 June 2010 <http://www.caj.ca/?p=743> 24 Oct. 2010

Chase, Steven. “Gov.-Gen. strips convicted murder Russell Williams of his rank.” Globe and Mail 22 Oct. 2010 <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-notebook/gov-gen-strips-convicted-murderer-russell-williams-of-his-rank/article1769185/> 24 Oct. 201

“Col. Russell Williams pleads guilty to all 88 charges.” CBC News 21 Oct. 2010 <http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2010/10/18/col-williams-court-1018.html#CIL> 24 Oct. 2010

Foreman, Gene. The Ethical Journalist. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell. 2010.

Glaberson, William. “A grisly murder trial, in 140-character bits.” New York Times 15 Oct. 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/nyregion/16cheshire.html?_r=3>
24 Oct. 2010

Hurley, Meghan. “Judge OKs live blogging from Col. Russell Williams hearings.” Ottawa Citizen 14 Oct. 2010 <http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Judge+live+blogging+from+Russell+Williams+hearings/3671040/story.html> 24 Oct. 2010

Kovach, Bill and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

McLachlin, C.J. et al. Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61. 22 Dec. 2009 <http://csc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/2009/2009scc61/2009scc61.html> 24 Oct. 2010

Silverman, Craig. “Eruption, interrupted.” Columbia Journalism Review 23 Apr. 2010 <http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/eruption_interrupted.php?page=all> 24 Oct. 2010

“Times Topics: Petit Family Killings.” New York Times 5 Oct. 2010 <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/p/petit_family/index.html> 24 Oct. 2010

Zerbisias, Antonia. “Murder she wrote: In 140 characters or less.” Toronto Star 22 Oct. 2010 <http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/article/880020--murder-she-wrote-in-140-characters-or-less> 24 Oct. 2010



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