Breaking it vs. checking it: Verification in a digital landscape

Bec Fary / September 04, 2013 05:47 AM

Introducing 'The New Newsroom' at the 2013 Melbourne Writers Festival, Peter Clarke described "the working journalist in their natural habitat", which is no longer just the newsroom. Stories are rarely, if ever, broken on front pages anymore. 


Rolling deadlines see stories uploaded and updated constantly. Instead of journalists working to a print deadline, news competition is now race to break a story first. 

On the 'Getting it Right' panel for 'New News', The Herald Sun's Damon Johnston, Denis Muller from the Centre for Advancing Journalism, Channel 9’s Brett McLeod and John Barron from ABC's Fact Checker walked the risky tightrope between breaking a story first and verifying accuracy.

"How do we try to meet the demand of getting the news first, but making sure we get it right?" asked Barron.

Muller said verification is a foundational ethical requirement in journalism, but admitted everyone makes mistakes. McLeod agreed:

"Most of the time we do get it right but it's important to acknowledge when we don't," he said.

Johnston described verification gaffes as a daily "hazard" newsroom, highlighting the increased ability to make mistakes in a 24-hour internet news cycle.

"It's part of what makes the newsroom a vibrant place to work," he said.

Barron acknowledged that journalists often rely on their ability to post corrections after getting something wrong, citing the ability to publish a correction in 23 minutes for a rise in the theory of  “never wrong for long”.

Barron said the "competitive bellies of journalists" mean everyone wants a story first, but the danger of publishing false information can be damage to a masthead's brand.

Damage can go beyond commercial considerations. Johnston cited footballer John McCarthy's death: although social media was awash with tributes, the media did not publish his name out of respect for his family, until they got the green light from Collingwood Football Club.

The panelists highlighted the difference between media outlets and social media users, saying even when verifiable information appears on Twitter or Facebook, journalists shouldn't always follow suit. 

The four panelists also reminisced about verification spills in their careers. Muller said he had the “great pleasure” of sacking an inexperienced journalist who fabricated an interview, while Barron described how easy it can be to create fake press releases and trigger hoax stories.

In a simulated practice news conference for the fake newspaper ‘Vapor Trail News’, Gay Alcorn, Jonathan Green, Wendy Harmer, Charles Firth and Sophie Black (with commentary by Peter Clarke and Denis Muller), 'The New Newsroom' featured a finale performance and discussion.

Peter Clarke described the "tsunami of coverage of the media ecosystem" that happens when a story breaks, saying journalists need a constant awareness of their market to keep audiences tuning in.

Black, who played a social media editor for ‘Vapor Trail News’, described a hectic schedule of multitasking live blogs, tweeting and publishing stories throughout the day.

"You're doing a thousand things at once," she said, highlighting the difficulty of making sure journalists are getting the story right when they now have to make the decision in under 60 seconds.

Wendy Harmer agreed, acknowledging the struggle, but said if journalists are getting eight out of 10 judgements right they're doing okay in the digital landscape.

At 'Getting it Right', Denis Muller was pragmatic in saying factual mistakes are part of the "juvenile state of the digital revolution". He said verification is now a question of maturity, hoping journalists tread carefully in finding the balance between "getting it right primarily and getting it first most of the time".

In the digital media ecosystem, the margin for breaking a story first is a matter of seconds. Social media sources are useful for modern journalists, but the 'New News' panelists warned journalists to exercise caution. Finding and distributing information is now easier than ever, and though it's tempting for journalists to scramble to publish first, verification is just as important as ever in holding media outlets and journalists accountable.

To see how #NewNews unfolded on Margaret Gee's Twitter account, see our storify version.


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