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Dyson at Large: Need for speed should never trump accuracy

john-wilsonIt was only a ten-word sentence, but it was enough to shake me out of my train-travelling slumber last week.

“Wise words on need to speed up response in newsrooms,” tweeted @johnwilsonWN, also known as John Wilson, editor of Newsquest’s weekly titles and online sites in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.

John, pictured left, then used an image of the words he was referring to, taken from a report of an interview with Lou Brancaccio, the editor emeritus of The Columbian, a daily paper in Vancouver, Washington.

“In many cases, Brancaccio argued, the paper does have the story, but the reporter is waiting until it is complete before publishing. “That’s old-school thinking,” he said, leading him—and others—to encourage reporters to publish online when a story breaks, fleshing it out as further details emerge. For many journalists that’s a radically different approach from the way they have previously worked. But Brancaccio believes it’s necessary for many outlets in this day and age. “The odds are somebody else has it,” he said, “and if you don’t get it up first, somebody else will.”

As John perhaps mischievously intended, his “wise words” tweet provoked several of his followers into indignant replies.

“And that’s the way embarrassing mistakes are made,” responded @cotslifeeditor, aka Mike Lowe, the editor of Cotswold Life, and former editor of the Bristol Evening Post, Derby Telegraph and The Citizen in Gloucester.

Even more lucid was @janerockhouse, aka Jane Haynes – a journalist and news editor with years of experience on the Wolverhampton Express & Star, Shropshire Star, Nottingham Post and South Wales Evening Post.

She said: “Mmmm. But there’s no mention here of why journos often wait – in my experience it’s to meet twin demands of verification and balance. Quest for quick should never trump accuracy.”

The ensuing newsroom-style debate was worth following, with John replying: “From your office you hear a large explosion and plume of smoke rising just a few streets away. What do you do?”

Jane, now studying for an MA in multiplatform and mobile journalism at Birmingham City University, under the tutelage of renowned data and mobile journalism specialist Prof Paul Bradshaw, retorted: “Would I quote people who had no more idea what was happening than me? No.

“See Manchester Arena attack for perfect [example] of news teams that did it right and those that spread misinformation [and] fake news. Our duty is to be right not first.”

John, of course, didn’t mean that, but repeated his call for speedy responses: “Who said anything about speculating? The point is that the story needs to go live, sentence by sentence as it develops, not when the reporter has assembled all the elements of the story as they would for print.”

But this didn’t convince Jane: “I also worry that a ‘publish fast, verify later’ approach becomes the norm… gives journos excuse to publish one-sided, biased or inaccurate story on grounds they’ll get round to publishing balance at some later stage. Do you think that’s good journalism?”

My views – tweeted on the same above trails – are somewhere in between: yes, file a breaking paragraph with caveats saying it’s to be confirmed, ‘early reports suggest’ and so on. But no unchecked rumour-spreading, surely?

John agreed, but still persisted: “But that’s not the same as doing nothing until you have every loose end tied up.”

And he’s got a point, hasn’t he? Breaking news rules in 2017, (as it has since news agencies rushed to wire breaking news across telegraph ticker tapes at the end of the 19th century).

The above-quoted Lou Brancaccio interview, by the way, is one of many in a 24,000-word study published by the Columbia Journalism Review, called: ‘New research: Small-market newspapers in the digital age’.

It’s strange how ten words from a local UK editor can lead to an entire afternoon’s reading of an in-depth, fascinating analysis of regional newspapers in the USA.

But back to John’s (and Lou’s) main point about newsrooms needing to speed up their responses: my view is that fast facts should ideally be double-sourced.

And if they are unchecked rumours from single sources, they should remain heavily caveated at the least, and untouched if doubted.

Or else real journalism will be indistinguishable from the widespread empty vessels that exist online. What do you think?

6 comments

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  • November 22, 2017 at 9:29 am
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    Actually, newspapers used to cover breaking stories piecemeal in exactly the way digital now does, within the limits of the technology – remember several editions a day, and the Stop Press column? Having proper standards and sufficient staff to maintain them meant, however, that they didn’t print any old rubbish they stumbled across on whatever the equivalent of Facebook was in the hot-metal era (chit-chat overheard on the bus, perhaps) without trying to stand it up, just because it might be a scoop.

    And it’s not just a risk for digital; see Ofcom’s judgement re. Channel 4 News’s balls-up on the Westminster Bridge attack for a textbook example of what can happen when tunnel vision takes over.

    It’s not digital versus print; it’s about professionalism.

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  • November 22, 2017 at 10:03 am
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    Steerpike. Absolutely right. Frankly , inexperienced and sometimes unqualified “reporters” are rushing to put stuff on the web, sometimes based on nothing more than the social media gossip.
    Actually the need to get material quickly on the web is purely a media priority. People in the real world don’t care who breaks a story and whether they do it before or after anyone else.
    The need to meet its own artificial deadline is NEVER an excuse for mistakes by the media.
    I once , early in my career on a daily, , made a big mistake because I bowed to pressure from a newsdesk and filed a story I was not 100 per cent happy about. I took the flak and rightly so, and it taught me a lesson.

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  • November 22, 2017 at 10:55 am
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    “From your office you hear a large explosion and plume of smoke rising just a few streets away. What do you do?”

    Oh! Oh! Oh! It’s multiple choice isn’t it?
    1.) Look on in amazement as your office has now relocated to an industrial estate 40 miles from the town centre and there ain’t no one around
    2. ) Hope to gods someone’s got it on phone ‘cos all the togs in your office were made redundant years ago.
    3.) Put up a “live on the scene as it happens’ vlog with wobblecam on t’internet and make it up on the hoof.
    4.) Wait for the BBC to arrive, as unlike the rest of us, they are uniquely funded and are best placed to deal with things. We’ll just re-hash their stuff later.

    😉

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  • November 22, 2017 at 7:59 pm
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    Trinity Mirror’s ‘Live’ websites excel in drip-feeding Facebook speculation and Twitter gossip in the guise of ‘news reporting’, making scant effort to substantiate or investigate what has actually happened. Throw in the appalling spelling, grammar and punctuation of Gloucestershire Live and some grainy, fuzzy readers’ phone photos taken a long way away from the scene – a speciality of The Birmingham Mail – and you have yourself the finest examples of ‘never mind the quality just look at how much we can churn out with virtually no staff’ that you could wish for.

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  • November 23, 2017 at 11:04 pm
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    Wouldn’t it be good if the readers were taken into account sometimes as well? You know, the ones who get so frustrated by the fact that the original “exclusive, breaking news” turns out to be either not worth a post in the first place or just plain wrong. Whatever the “audience figures” say, those readers have stated to look elsewhere for their news – both local and national. I know, I’m one of them.

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  • November 30, 2017 at 12:31 pm
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    Or as my old news editor said: “Get the story, but get it right.”Such an old fashioned idea.

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