Big Mouth Journalism: A Grad Student's Thoughts on Report Now, Apologize Later

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Mistakes and errors in journalism have occurred for decades. Some become jokes, others have more serious consequences, but whatever the outcome, the mistakes themselves are not surprising. After all, to err is human, and so are news producers. A journalistic mistake here and there is bound to happen. On the other hand, are journalists perhaps becoming a little too human and error-prone for ethical journalism to prevail?

As technology advances—allowing us to multitask more than ever, promoting our connection to the world, and enabling our dependency on this connection—our increasingly busy lives demand of us immediacy in information consumption. News media have been doing an excellent job at keeping up with technological progress, and feeding us information expeditiously and constantly. Very convenient for us! The other side of the coin, however, is that news media seem to have lost some of their sense of ethical responsibility in that process.

Taking the risk of potentially feeding us—the audience—erroneous information in lieu of thoroughly checking source credibility to ensure a correct report seems to have become the norm among many news agencies. This modern trend of “report now, apologize later” is clearly a violation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, of which the very first principle reads “Seek Truth and Report It” (SPJ, n.d.). Additionally, this very first principle contains a series of self-explanatory ethics guidelines journalists should follow. Among these, some are explicitly related to the “report now, apologize later” trend:

  • “Journalists should:
    • Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
    • Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

        …

  • Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources” (SPJ, n.d.).

The SPJ’s Code of Ethics on minimization of harm contains guidelines outlining that journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort… and show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage” (SPJ, n.d.).

Historical examples of violation of these codes are many. One of the most prominent is the false reports of an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombings, published while the F.B.I. was still investigating the case and, in fact, no arrest had yet been made. Important news outlets, including CNN, Fox News, and even the Associated Press, were harshly criticized by the F.B.I..  The F.B.I. opined that such misinformation could have unintended consequences (Carter, 2013).

Another example is the false reports of the death of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, victim of a gun shot to the head. Many news media channels, including the well-known (CBS, NBC, Fox News, and ABC) were quick to replicate the erroneous report from the National Public Radio that Rep. Giffords had died while, in truth, she was still alive and undergoing surgery (Bauder, 2011). In this case, news media certainly did not take responsibility for the accuracy or their work, nor did they have compassion for Giffords’ family by falsely reporting her death in a moment when they were surely feeling most vulnerable. Ultimately, the news media was forced to apologize, in a now classic “report now, apologize later” style.

I was asked if we—the audience—should expect (or demand) more evidence to verify information before it is reported. My immediate answer to that question is yes, absolutely. On the other hand, deeper thought brings forth conflicts. How would the audience be able to make the point?  How long would it take to receive accurate news? I am not sure that I want to have to wait, and I am guessing I am not alone. Many of us are immediacy addicts. My final answer to the question, then, remains conflicted (I admit that and welcome readers’ feedback); I do think we should demand more accuracy from news media, but I am not sure how to do so, nor do I want to have to wait for news.

Who is to blame for this trend of reporting now and apologizing later? Are we, as citizens, the culprit in this situation? Since I just admitted I am an immediacy addict, I am by default also admitting I am an enabler of “report now, apologize later” behavior. But this does not mean I agree; it simply means that at this point, I no longer hold news media to an unimpeachable standard.  It has become human-like. These days, I hear news reporting as if a friend, a colleague, or an acquaintance was telling me a story. I pay attention to what they say but whether I fully believe everything said is not an immediate reaction, and depends on many factors. But I can say this with confidence: whenever the news is about something important, I remain skeptical until I find other sources that confirm it.

Reference:

Bauder, D. (2011). Media outlets apologize after falsely reporting Giffords’ death. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/10/media-outlets-apologize-a_n_806603.html

Carter, B. (2013). The F.B.I. criticizes the news media after several mistaken reports of an arrest. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/business/media/fbi-criticizes-false-reports-of-a-bombing-arrest.html?_r=1

Society of Professional Journalists (n.d.). SPJ code of ethics. Retrieved from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp