Should journalists get it right, or get it first?

UPDATE (at bottom of post): Letter writer to Romenesko accuses Jarvis and Arrington of falsely accusing Damin Darlin (author of the NYT article that started this kerfuffle) of attacking bloggers.

Nothing like a battle between mainstream media and bloggers over journalism ethics to add some juicy drama to the weekend. Here’s the quick and dirty:

The New York Times runs a story taking tech bloggers (including TechCrunch) to task for running stories without verification.

TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington fires back, accusing the Times of having already made up its mind about what kind of story it was going to run before it interviewed him.

And Jeff Jarvis weighs in, declaring that “process journalism” — reporting what is known or believed to be true as it is learned — is replacing the myth of perfection, wherein reporters get the story verified beyond any doubt before packaging and presenting it to readers.

Ah, but there’s the rub: What is the potential harm in reporting what falls into a category that’s perhaps a notch or two below what is “believed to be true”? Arrington makes the argument that TechCrunch’s post on rumors of Apple being in talks to acquire Twitter was based on a previously reliable source. Furthermore, he argues, the very act of reporting a rumor is a way of verifying by beating the bushes, so to speak:

Some people ask why we don’t just wait until we have the whole story before posting. That’s where the cheap/expensive quote above comes in. The fact is that we sometimes can’t get to the end story without going through this process. CEOs don’t always take our calls when we’re asking about speculative rumors. But when a story is up and posted, it’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to give us additional information.

Jarvis makes a similar point in his post:

To quote Gawker founder Nick Denton, when we put up “half-baked posts” we are saying to our public: Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, what do you know.

Jarvis continues by arguing that journalism’s “myth of perfection” was a necessary byproduct of the “means and requirements of mass production”:

If you have just one chance to put out a product and it has to serve everyone the same, you come to believe it’s perfect because it has to be …

… The posse of pros who jumped on me in Twitter this morning will say that they do make mistakes and corrections but first they always try to get it right – perfect – while bloggers instead spread rumors. But that’s where the fundamental misunderstanding comes. It’s a matter of timing, of the order of things, of the process of journalism. Newspaper people see their articles as finished products of their work. Bloggers see their posts as part of the process of learning.

To put it another way and use an oft-repeated analogy, journalists, by reporting in real time (or close to it) are simply letting readers see how the sausage is being made, revealing what was previously behind the scenes.

Online, the story, the reporting, the knowledge are never done and never perfect. That doesn’t mean that we revel in imperfection, as is the implication of The Times’ story – that we have no standards. It just means that we do journalism differently, because we can. We have our standards, too, and they include collaboration, transparency, letting readers into the process, and trying to say what we don’t know when we publish – as caveats – rather than afterward – as corrections.

I see no contradiction between both getting first and getting it right. As Gina Chen argued on her Save the Media blog, a journalist should tell “the story as you know it at that moment in time.” The speed of the Web has conditioned us to expect news as it happens, not according to a printing press cycle. And journalists, via blogs, have the ability to provide that information as it becomes available to them. The inclusion of unverified reports is the sticking point. For simply reporting rumor can adversely affect reputations, finances and readers’ faith in their news providers. Yes, as Arrington pointed out, putting out a rumor is a way of testing its veracity. But not all rumors are created equal.

Journalists and their editors still have to make the call as to which rumors can be safely voiced without causing undue harm. And then they must be transparent by labeling the rumor as such and making clear to readers what they don’t know. Reporting rumors can be a way of eliciting the truth. Sometimes, even if they turn out to be false, the comments and talkback generated from a post can be instructive and illuminating.

UPDATE: In a letter to Romenesko, David Cay Johnston contends that Darlin’s New York Times piece, rather than being an attack, was merely descriptive of Arrington’s rationale behind publishing rumors, while also echoing the point I made about their potential value:

Nowhere does Arrington deny the key words Darlin wrote concerning two posts (at Gawker and TechCrunch) by people who “suspected the rumor was groundless when they wrote the items.”

If that was all that Darlin wrote I would join Arrington and Jarvis in their criticism. But Darlin went on to give context and explanation about different attitudes on when to publish, including whether posting an item one suspects is untrue can be valuable if it provokes debate and does not harm. That, too, is a topic that NYT readers may now be discussing thanks to Darlin.

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One response to “Should journalists get it right, or get it first?

  1. This online debate on the recurring question: Should journalists get it right or get it first? strikes at the heart of journalism and has been over the years a subject of voluminous academic and professional writing and discourse.

    The simple answer is that the profession requires a journalist to do both, get the stories right and to get them first. Should he flounder and lag behind he won’t be a respected and successful journalist.

    Racing to get stories for publication or on-air transmission to be first past the post at the cost of accuracy, impartiality, contextuality and objectivity would be a compromise of professional and journalistic integrity.

    Bloggers, enabled by ubiquitous digital technology and mobile phones, are empowered to be the eyes and ears of many internet surfers.

    They may no doubt be providing a useful service but some would argue that whatever they write and say must be taken with a pinch of salt. Since their voices are not validated or checked they are likely to be misleading, malicious or pure disinformation. Others would counter-argue that a huge number of people are turning to the Internet for news. This does not say anything about the veracity or tenacity of blogs.

    They are out there in the field everywhere and can be deemed to be signposters to a geographical area or a sector where news is likely to break which are then picked up or out by journalists for coverage. Let them be bloggers and not call themselves journalists, as besides writing a few self-opinionated lines, they are totally unaware of the values and ethics, and devoid of qualifications, training that shape or make a journalistic profession.

    Who is a creditable source of credible news? I am sorry to answer this myself by re-affirming my faith in only journalists.

    Their practice is respected, time-tested and they are trained professionally. I would not trust a butcher to operate on myself or my family just because he can use or wield a knife. You got the hint.

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