Accuracy -- to get the facts and context of a story right -- is a fundamental norm of ethical journalism. Inaccurate reporting undermines important news stories and can mislead the public. Though accuracy is not the sole ingredient for truthful reporting, it is nevertheless indispensable.
Accurate reporting has never been easy, given journalism’s deadline-driven nature. But today, accuracy is further challenged, as news-making adopts the internet medium.
Reporter covers the Kearny Street explosion in San Francisco. Photo by Thomas Hawk
One of the greatest benefits of online journalism is its ability to reach millions of people almost instantaneously. But the pressure to keep news current – online within minutes of an event’s occurrence – can jeopardize the accurate reportingof even the most ethically-conscious journalist. Furthermore, the proliferation of news outlets – bloggers by the millions, of course, but also cable television, satellite television, web sites, and web broadcasts – has resulted in a multi-media race to get “the” story 24 hours a day. As the pace intensifies, so does the pressure to cut corners.
Adding to the pressure is the public’s increasing demand to see news as it happens. When a volcano erupts in Mexico, news will reach radio-listeners, web-news readers, and international bloggers within hours, if not minutes. Recently, Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States exemplified this situation. The whole world followed news-coverage of the disaster. Networks and newspapers competed to break the first and most heart-rending stories. In the race, however, many newsmakers incorporated unsubstantiated rumors into their reports. Rapes that never occurred were mourned on network news; accounts of mass deaths were aired, but the vividly-described corpses have not been found; one report claimed that a woman high-jacked a bus to rescue fellow New Orleans residents – she denied it three days later.
Laziness, lack of rigor, and other bad habits complicate the ethics of accuracy and speed. Journalists who, in the interest of time, report press releases as news do an ethical disservice to the populations they inform. Consider a July 25, 2005 story on Myanmar (Burma) by the Associated Press (AP). The article states that Shan State army leaders gave up their weapons in an arms-for-peace exchange. The story behind this event, however, is much more complex and interesting. For the five months prior to the “deal,” the Burmese military government had been pressuring Shan leaders to disarm, using means that included “confiscating” their cars to immobilize them in remore corners of the country (far from their public), imprisoning some, and instigating third-party militants to attack the Shan. The AP article was timely, and it accurately represented the NCLC (Burmese Government) press release, but it failed to inform readers of the surrounding events and circumstances.
How fast is too fast, when news must be more than mere glorified rumors? And how much accuracy is too much, when news must be current?
The same impatient public that wants speedy information also expects the news media to take pains to ensure their reports are as accurate and verified as possible. Almost every poll regarding news media credibility shows that the public expects accuracy from journalists, no matter how pressing their deadlines. See Report Card on Canadian News. This is neither surprising nor unreasonable, though it is certainly extremely – and increasingly – challenging. A balance is necessary between speed and accuracy. The public demands it, and so do journalistic codes of ethics. The consequences of disseminating falsehoods can be equally serious as the consequence of tardy news-dissemination.