Monday, July 6, 2009

Speed vs. Accuracy in the Digital Age

On the eve of Michael Jackson's much anticipated memorial service, I find it interesting that Marisa Guthrie writes, in Broadcasting & Cable, about the "flurry of incomplete and at times inaccurate reports" surrounding the "King of Pop."

Guthrie acknowledges that "speed occasionally trumps accuracy" in the digital age. Personally, I would say it happens more often than "occasionally," and, while I write three blogs, I worry about the future of news reporting when much of it appears to be destined to be in the hands of the so–called "citizen journalists," most of whom are answerable to no one.

"[T]he media has given a platform to an endless cycle of hangers–on and business associates who have emerged with all kinds of claims," Guthrie writes, "and the blogosphere has served to further gin up the rumor mill."

This is why I have warned my fellow bloggers against presenting something as fact until they have attributable sources to support their conclusions. Those in the modern news business still feel that desire to "scoop" the competition, but far too many give in to the temptation to do so without verifying the accuracy of what they report. It is a recipe for disaster.

The players in news reporting are changing, but the rules are still the same, as far as I can see. I fully expect a proliferation of libel suits as communications law struggles to catch up. I also expect many bloggers to be caught by surprise when they find themselves at the center of these legal actions.

In broadcasting, it's still about the ratings, as Guthrie observes.

"[W]hile a Pew Research Center survey conducted June 26–29 found that almost two–thirds (64%) of the public says news organizations gave too much attention to Jackson's death, TV ratings tell a different story," Guthrie writes. "CBS' 48 Hours Michael Jackson special Picking Up the Pieces, hosted by Katie Couric, won its time slot on June 30. More than 10 million viewers watched NBC Nightly News on June 25, the day Jackson died. On June 29, ABC's Nightline, which included reports about Jackson as well as Bernie Madoff, out–rated NBC's Tonight Show and CBS' Late Show. NBC's Today posted more than 6.5 million video streams on its website June 26, a new record."

Perhaps we needed the death of someone like Michael Jackson to focus some attention on the shortcomings of modern news delivery methods and ask some important questions. Traditional media outlets — newspapers, radio stations, TV networks — already have asked themselves these questions and realized that accuracy is more important than speed. That is why, on the day Jackson died, CNN refused to report that he was dead until it was able to confirm the information.

It's still better to be safe than sorry — even if being careful seems boring or hard work.

Internet journalism is still in its infancy. Perhaps it has to learn some of these old lessons the hard way. Perhaps it will take a few setbacks to gain credibility.

Taking the time to confirm the accuracy of a story will almost certainly result in the debunking of some outrageous — and, undoubtedly, enticing — stories.

But ask yourself this: Wouldn't you rather be right than be on the short end of a multimillion–dollar lawsuit?

P.S. At his blog You Don't Say, John McIntyre, a longtime editor for the Baltimore Sun, has some intriguing observations about "journalistic integrity."

It would be well worth your time to read it.

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