Cedar Rapids Gazette, Standards for digital breaking news coverage
Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards
Accuracy, verification, attribution and deadlines
By Steve Buttry
Discuss — off deadline — your newsroom's standards on breaking news. You want to get the news online as quickly as possible, but in the opening minutes or hours of covering a breaking story, you are still sorting fact from rumor. You know something happened, but you're not sure yet what. Some guidelines that might help:
- Standards for completeness change with digital editions, but not standards for accuracy. The first bulletins alerting readers to breaking news aren't full stories and online readers understand that. Tell just what you know and be sure not to speculate or assume. An accurate story is more important than a complete one.
- Attribute everything you didn't see first-hand, especially in the early hours of a story. Don't say “12 miners were rescued miraculously.” Say, “family members say state officials told them 12 miners had been rescued.” And say that you're seeking verification.
- Acknowledge what you don't know, such as that company officials have not yet confirmed the rescue. Tell readers when you area seeking verification or when you're receiving conflicting reports.
- Seek verification and get the verification online as quickly as possible to bolster the initial bulletin.
- You can update the web at any time. A brief story or even a one-sentence bulletin will suffice when that is all you know. Brief and frequent updates of breaking news, publishing facts only as you verify them, help drive traffic in addition to protecting credibility.
- As soon as you learn that something you have posted online is inaccurate, fix it. And note that you are correcting inaccurate information posted earlier. Readers checking your web site frequently will notice the conflicting accounts. You hurt your credibility more by publishing unexplained inconsistent information than by acknowledging mistakes.
- If you're liveblogging an event and then post a writethru to the web after you've written the print story, someone should read both the liveblog and the writethru to check for and correct inconsistencies.
- Discuss your standards for reporting, if at all, about calls you hear over a police scanner. Is it acceptable to report that dispatchers have sent emergency crews to a particular site for a particular purpose? Or do you wait till you have a reporter on the site?
Editing provides a valuable backstop
Online coverage of breaking news presents lots of trade-offs: If reporters can post directly to the web, you can cover events in real time. Yet you lose the benefit of editing not only to improve grammar and the smoothness of copy but sometimes to uphold standards on issues of taste, accuracy, privacy or fairness. This is not a case where one answer fits all situations. Some reporters need more editing than others. Some situations demand more caution. Consider at least these factors as you decide the appropriate level of editing:
- Type of story. If you are writing about crimes or other issues that might damage someone's reputation, you might need more editing than a weather story or a sports game story.
- Reporter. Newsrooms need aggressive reporters who are willing to take chances. But those reporters need good editors to backstop their judgment. Editors may decide that one reporter has exercised consistently good judgment and can post directly to the web, while another needs editing or at least consultation first.
- Consider the full range of possibilities. If you decide that reporters should post directly to the web for some types of stories, you can have editors read back behind them, so that any errors or questionable judgments are addressed quickly. You can authorize reporters to post directly to the web, with instructions to confer with editors before posting anything that would raise issues of taste, privacy or fairness. You can invite readers to alert you to errors they spot. You can decide that the editor and reporter should discuss a story as it is unfolding and then decide whether editing is needed. You can authorize the reporter to post routine news or developments directly to the web but either confer with editors or send copy to editors in any borderline cases.
Does the rush to get news online right away change your responsibility to present fair content and to give people a chance to respond to charges or criticism? Does fairness come over time, rather than in each story? For instance, is it OK to rush a partial story online, making a charge or criticism, with the presumption that the response will get lead position in a later story or update, balancing your coverage over time? How do you ensure that this really happens? What if the response comes at a time when other developments in the story are breaking and it doesn't get as prominent play as the original accusation? Are some situations so serious that you need to apply your standard of fairness from the first bulletin?
An approach that recognizes urgency and fairness would be to present a charge, allegation or criticism when it breaks and report at the time that you will be seeking comment from the person in question. Then, when you get the response (or the no-comment), that should receive similar prominence on your web site. For instance, if the charge was promoted as “breaking news” or led a “latest news” listing, the response should be featured the same way.
Interactive media give you a chance to improve the accuracy of breaking news coverage by seeking verification, documentation and detail from the public. They also present dangers of mixing rumor, speculation, exaggeration, unsubstantiated attacks and unsupported boasts with your serious journalism, which could undermine your credibility.
When you are seeking eyewitness accounts of a story or photos or videos from the public, consider whether you want to invite the public to post directly to the web or email their contributions to you for your consideration. Some questions to consider in deciding this: Might the contributions from the public invade someone's privacy? Might the contributions from the public degenerate into arguments or insults about a controversial issue? Even if you value the arguments as healthy public conversation, this might not be the place where you want people with personal experience in the issue or story that is breaking.
Consider the immediate impact
The immediacy of online coverage of breaking news requires some consideration of the impact of your coverage beyond what you consider for the delayed coverage of print. You may get identities of victims or hostages before their families have been notified. Try to learn whether family members have been notified and consider whether you should wait until they have been to release names. If you are writing during a military operation, police manhunt or hostage situation, consider whether enemy troops, fugitives or hostage-takers may read your coverage as the event is unfolding and whether your coverage might influence the event in some way. Amber alerts or other news about missing young people can present a dilemma when you publish the alert, with the name and photo of the missing child, then learn hours later that the child has been recovered and was sexually abused. Discuss how some of these concerns might shape your coverage in all stories, in special cases or in specific stories.
Evaluate how you're doing
Discuss how you did after each major breaking news story that you cover (and probably after some lesser breaking stories). If you rushed to get some news online and some things turned out to be wrong, discuss whether you need to be more demanding of verification or whether you need more editing. If you got beaten on a story, discuss whether you were too cautious and can be more aggressive the next time and still be sure to get it right.
Consider explaining your decisions
As you write and report in different ways, consider explaining to your audience in editor's notes, an editor's blog and/or an editor's column what you are doing and why. If you just covered a big story and you did pretty well, explain what you're doing differently and how you managed to uphold standards as you changed. If you made some mistakes, admit and explain them to readers and explain how you plan to do better in the future. Transparency is helpful as you deal with unfamiliar territory.
For more information, see Steve Buttry's blog