Responsible Reporting Section 3 ‘What You Must Do’: Chapter IV

Serialization of my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gathers is off-schedule ahead of its release into the public domain. So, as an effort to catch up, I present installments today and Sunday, for your weekend reading.

Today’s chapter is among the most important from the book. I discuss the reporter’s responsibility to be accurate. Simply stated: Write what you know to be true in the moment, and expect what you know to change. The chapter is another where establishing and maintaining trust with the audience, and also sources, is foundational to reporting responsibly. 

Today’s installment is best appreciated in context of the others. To best follow the logical flow, you should start at the beginning: Foreward; Section 1, Chapters I and IIIII and IVV and VI; Section 2, Chapters IIIIIIIV, and V; Section 3, Chapters I and II, III.

With that brief introduction…


IV. The Prime Directive

Not being beholden to truth first doesn’t free you from it. On the contrary, your responsibility increases, depending how much your audience demands accuracy—or you do. Audience obligates you to report what you know to be true in the moment. I will repeat my assertion from section one: The principle—write what you know to be true in the moment—is akin to the Prime Directive on “Star Trek”. If you mislead or lie to your audience you will lose it. Discovery is inevitable. If your peers don’t expose you—hey, they are journalists—someone else will. Social media is wildfire tinder set off by just one tweet.

Reporting accuracy starts with responsible sourcing. Today, there is too little of it. Scan the web or social shares, and a clear pattern quickly emerges. Blog A reports that military veterans born after 1992 aren’t eligible for separate health insurance because they are young enough to be covered by their parents’ plans, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act. Sourcing is anonymous.

Other blogs report on the story or write full synopses, crediting not an original source but another site. Many links do not go back to Blog A, but to some intermediary blog referring to the first. Along this process of linking, there is little—and often no—follow-up reporting. The writers are a bunch of lemmings chasing the same thing. Later, the veteran health-care story turns out to bogus, but the news record stands, perpetuated by linked posts, without verification or correction.

The Follow
All this free, unverified, cross-linked information kills traditional news organizations. Strangely, they are part of the problem and hoist on their own petard, as the summarized phrase goes. What I call “The Follow” defined Twentieth Century news reporting. Perhaps the Los Angeles Times got a big scoop, or something less, and other newspapers rushed to follow the lead. They had to have the same story, too, and typically credited the paper breaking the story. In my experience working as reporter, the motivation was often less about readers and more about competition and editorial ego.

The Follow would sometimes lead to unnecessary and, from a news perspective, undeserved feeding frenzies around events or personalities. It’s a practice I detest and typically refuse to, well, follow. I have a reputation for arguing with editors, emphatically saying “No” to following the competition. On those occasions where I obeyed my bosses, my reporting would start from scratch rather than build on other stories. Any good reporter knows that The Follow often leads to misreporting, particularly if something wasn’t quite right with the first story. Original reporting can correct the official record but not the already disseminated misinformation.

Online today, The Follow is a license to link. Strangely the behavior reminds me of Puerto Rico. February 1987, two friends and I fly to the island, where we will stay for six weeks. Around 2 a.m, we stop at our first red traffic light. Coming the other direction, a local driver slows down at the four-way, then drives through the intersection. Over the next couple days, we find running red lights to be commonplace. I ask one of our hosts about this strange practice, to which she gives unexpected response. The behavior started when the island adopted right-on-red laws, she claims. Some drivers took liberties and others followed the lead. I see The Follow much the same way.

SPJ provides excellent ethical guidelines for sourcing:

  • Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources
  • Always question sources motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

Using a single source is often careless. Reporting news based on a single, anonymous source is reckless. Referring to another blog or news source as single source is negligence and contributes to the spread of gossip and rumor masked as news. My observation: Most rumor posts remain uncorrected when later proved to be inaccurate.

The Weapon
If you source another blog or news site you violate the Prime Directive, because you don’t know what’s true. You can only understand by doing your own reporting, which means directly interacting with sources whom you can trust. Synopsis sourcing—the aggregator’s lifeblood—is the most dangerous. It’s a loaded weapon. Blam! Story is wrong. Blam! Another. Eventually the audience’s trust in you is dead.

“Journalists must think how they can best add value to information, not how they can most rapidly repeat it”, professor Jarvis chides. “Explaining the story is adding value. Getting it wrong detracts value and devalues credibility”.

Anonymous sourcing is a disease sickening online news reporting. There is too much of it! Re-sourcing someone’s anonymous source is akin to willingly spreading pestilence to cause harm. Both practices are a double-standard. Transparency is supposed to be one of new media’s most charming characteristics. There is nothing transparent about anonymous sources—and using them so damn often. Sourcing a blog or news site citing an unnamed source is opaque, defying any concept of an open Internet.

Something else: The entities you write about also are audience. They need to trust you, too—that reporting will be responsible, even when the story’s content is unfavorable to them. Your anonymously sourced rumor story—or worse synopsis of someone else’s unnamed source story—can damage reputations, move public companies’ stocks, or cause unexpected consequences. There is a difference between responsibly reported stories and anonymously sourced rumors and the consequences they create. The latter violates the Prime Directive, is irresponsible, and may even be libelous. If you can’t independently confirm it, don’t write it.

Journalist Ian Betteridge, in February 2009 commenting about reporting accuracy—and a headline-writing rule referred to later in this book—is right: “The moment you can have a serious effect on a company or individual, you owe it to the world to be sure of what you say”.

You are either part of the problem or the solution. Choose which. If the latter, the task is daunting, because to repeat: The Fourth Estate is in a state of tumultuous transition and uncertainty, but so are news consumers. There are too many media sources to choose from. People need information sources they can trust. That circles back to the earlier discussion about personalities whom audiences depend on. Why you and not your media publisher is the brand that matters.

News reporting has always been a process, but one long hidden from the audience when the story prints in complete form. In the age of context, many news stories unfold in real time across vast landscapes of social contexts—blogs, Facebook, texting and messaging apps, and Twitter, among others. The journalist’s job is to sift through these distant sources and ones with which he or she directly interacts and by answering who, what, where, when, and why tell a news story—several when examining different points of view. The responsible journalist is the sane voice rising above the cacophony, not—by aggregating someone else’s writing—adding to the noise.

The Prank
Sourcing is one of my pet peeves, going back decades—not just during the age of context. Bad sourcing isn’t new, just amplified to background distortion today. Sadly, some journalists invent sources.

I have one regret from my younger reporting days—something not done. Before the U.S. Justice Department and 20 state attorneys general filed their landmark antitrust case against Microsoft in May 1998, the parties met for last-minute settlement discussions. Reporters all but camped out looking for news. I repeatedly heard other journalists discussing the case, offering arm-chair analyses, or speculating outcome—only to later read some of the content in news stories that attributed sources close the discussions. Close as in nobody involved just some reporter with a big mouth.

I told my buddy Daryl Taft, who worked the trial with me: “I can’t stand this crap. I’m going down to the courthouse and from a public phone will call in a juicy story. To you. Fake. Nothing we would write, but something just believable enough. Let’s see who eavesdrops and writes it up”. But my colleague strongly discouraged me, and I acquiesced.

The Tabloid
News gatherers who invent content or sources bug me, obviously. Some of the best sourcing comes from tabloids, despite reputations for raucous headlines and leading stories. Many news tabloids are engrossed in their local communities and maintain high standards of sourcing and accountability.

The disgraced is timely start. As I write, former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks is on trial for the phone hacking scandal that brought down the newspaper after 168 years of operation. Publisher Rupert Murdoch closed the tabloid, which had over 2.6 million subscribers, in July 2011, in the wake of a political and ethical uproar about breaking into prominent public figures’ voice mail, among other alleged misbehaviors.

Something often ignored in the whole News of the World scandal: Editors and reporters were true to readers, by obtaining verifiable information to write about. Objectors of all kinds can quibble about the ethics and legality of the methods, but the reporting priority was right: Write what you know (or can confirm) to be true.

Another fine example is six-part Bravo TV series “The Tabloid Wars”, which I bought from iTunes in July 2006. The series offers an inside look into New York Daily News operations, following the reporters chasing stories. Sourcing and verification standards are exceptional, as portrayed. The short-lived reality show should be required viewing for news gatherers everywhere. Digital downloads of the series are available from Amazon and Apple.

The Shield
So there is no misunderstanding, using anonymous sources can be good journalism—as long as they are yours. They need to trust you will protect their anonymity, and, as stated previously, in writing you extend your trust in sources to your audience.

Depending on jurisdiction, federal and state shield laws safeguard sources’ trust. However, many bloggers, journalists, and members of the general public are confused about the purpose of shield laws. They are not meant to protect journalists. The laws exist to protect journalists’ sources. The shield extends to the reporter so that he or she can’t be forced to reveal confidential sources or to have information about them forcibly seized.

In the age of context, you are the trusted source.