In the news business, being wrong used to be the kiss of death. It would cost a newspaper its reputation and its readers.
Back before the Internet allowed for speedy delivery of information and disinformation alike, news agencies could take the time to report and verify leads and rumors before going to print. News was usually accurate. Readers learned to believe what they read.
Somewhere along the way in the last decade or two, speed has taken over the steering wheel, often putting accuracy in the back seat. Being first increased the likelihood of getting clicks. More clicks mean more advertising revenue. Advertising income based on clicks was replacing advertising based on subscriptions. Follow the money.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with alluring headlines. Tension and conflict have always attracted readers. As the old journalist saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” But these days we are skipping the part of actually checking whether the reports of blood are accurate. How can you tell blood from ketchup in a YouTube video? Or check a person’s identity behind a Twitter tweet?
News agencies are citing each other, whipping up a frenzy of outrage and urgency, while skipping the part where they do their own reporting to verify the accuracy of the reports. Publish first, get the click and verify later.
The pressure to publish something increases exponentially when “everybody else has it.” We saw this happen at a dizzying speed during the stand-off between the students from Covington High School and Native Americans in D.C. One news agency picked up a bit of a video and wrote a story describing what could be seen in the clip. The others followed suit. We readers helped make it go viral.
Problem was, in the following days, additional information and footage appeared on social media and through news interviews. It showed a different story. Typically, these things would turn up in the reporting process before the story was printed. Instead, today, the readers are part of the reporting process.
A number of media companies are being sued after that event. In the rush to publish, the lack of complete reporting led to the defamation of citizens, the plaintiffs claim.
The result of all this rushed reporting is that consumers of news are better off disbelieving news articles unless they can be verified. But few of us have the tools to do so. How do you know if the news writer has done her due diligence before publication? Here are three things to flag.
The first is transparency. Whenever a news article cites reports or uses the word “reportedly,” be cautious. An organization that values accuracy also values transparency. That means the article will include links to the reports, so you can read yourself. The article should also tell you how they tried to verify it and what they learned. If the article does none of this, treat it as false until you can verify elsewhere.
The second is bias in word choice. Look out for unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. A reporter should never need to use words like “extreme,” “severe,” “excessive” or “lacking.”
Finally, watch out for fact choice. Just because an article includes a number or a video doesn’t mean the statistic is correct or the video shows the whole picture. Numbers do lie and seeing is not always believing. All our old sayings need to be turned on their heads.
Whatever you do, keep your critical-thinking hat on. Just because the reporter interviewed the source of a piece of information doesn’t mean it was verified. Same thing for a new report that reveals its source. It just means you have enough information to make your own decision about what you believe. That decision is yours.
We used to be able to afford believing a news item was true until it was disproven. Today, we don’t have that luxury. In fact, we have the opposite. But we can learn how to call out lack of transparency and bias. If we keep doing that, chances are accuracy will again reign king in news.
In the second half of the 1800s, we had a similar situation where printing costs made newspapers affordable for the masses. That brought about editorial pressure to sensationalize the news to attract readers with lucrative headlines. The phrase “Yellow Journalism” comes from this period. In time, we moved to adopting an ethical code that put accuracy at the center again.
Let’s hope that the pendulum will swing back this time too. Until then, readers need to take an active part in the process of verifying news before they decide what to believe.