When Does Speed Take Precedent Over Accuracy In Journalism?

girl with a laptop sitting on newspapers

In media there’s a constant pressure to get the news up first, however there’s no shortage of hoaxes online and sometimes the media trips up. At what point do time pressures to be the story originator overtake the need for fact checking and accuracy?

Emma Mackenzie
Posted by Emma Mackenzie

Having something to talk about is how the media is increasingly choosing to cover stories, even if it ends up wrong, said host Paul Barry on ABC’s Media Watch Monday evening. Referencing a recent story about three British lads who had a few too many one night and claimed they woke up Syria, Barry said that even though many major media outlets got the story wrong (it never happened), the fact that the trio “fooled the media” became the new story of the day.

As Barry points out, the story originated from entertainment website, The Lad Bible, and was subsequently reported by numerous other outlets. Barry admonished these outlets for not fact-checking before publishing.

Tuesday also saw US publication USA Today report American novelist Cormac McCarthy’s death, based on a tweet. McCarthy is still alive. In an article about the issue Gawker said while it’s unclear whether USA Today contacted McCarthy’s representatives to check, what is clear is that they didn’t wait for a response before publishing. The retraction from USA Today reads: “A USA TODAY news alert notification claiming the death of author Cormac McCarthy turned out to be false and was based on information from an unofficial Twitter account. McCarthy’s publicist confirms he’s alive.”

There’s no denying pressures are ripe in newsrooms, with one journo telling The Guardian she constantly has editors breathing down her neck to meet targets.

Many of the media outlets who provided comment for this story said speed should never override getting the facts straight, but still, accidents happen.

Who could forget the guy who claimed Facebook was censoring his name – which he alleged was Phuc Dat Bich – only to turn around and say it was all a fake. The story was reported far and wide across the internet. And the story that it was a fake story also received a mammoth amount of coverage.

Arguably one of the most reputable publications in the States, The Wall Street Journal, said it’s better to be right than first.

“We owe it to readers and to the subjects of our stories to make sure what we report is right,” Matt Murray, deputy editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal told B&T. “It is good to be first, but it is always better to be right than first. When errors happen, it’s important to be as forthright as possible in acknowledging them as quickly as you can.”

Deputy editor at Guardian Australia, Will Woodward, said the editorial team takes care not to over-claim in reporting, however when live-blogging is underway, such as during election time or the recent EU/Brexit business, it can pose a problem.

“Sometimes, for instance in a liveblog, it can be necessary or useful to report information we have not checked ourselves or had independently verified by trusted sources, but this is rare and we always make clear when this is the case,” he said.

“If we make mistakes which materially affect the stories, we correct at the bottom of the article.”

Fact-checking remains a fundamental aspect of journalism, put in Christopher Dore, editor of News Corp’s The Daily Telegraph. Still, having articles online means publications can change and update incorrect details at the drop of a hat. A couple of clicks, and no one is any the wiser.

Dore acknowledges there are some publications that operate under the mantra ‘not wrong for long’, however he said the Daily Tele’s editorial team believes “we should only publish what we know to be accurate”.

“Once published, always published,” he said. “It isn’t journalism to publish, retract, publish, retract. That’s not to say mistakes are not made, but we have safeguards in place to limit publishing misinformation of that nature. It’s not in our interests to change that model. People come to us expecting the facts, not rumours and tweets.”