The Society of Profession Journalists Code of Ethics states: “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” But with the move to digital platforms, speed is becoming increasingly important to journalists.
A journalist’s job is to communicate and persuade. Journalists communicate information to news consumers (readers, listeners, viewers) and try to persuade them to keep reading or to come back for information in the future. Journalism has been around for thousands of years, but recent changes with technology are bringing changes to the business and business model. Since speed can mean more views (and more views often means more money raised in advertisements), sometimes journalists publish stories before all of the facts are completely known. Historically, this has not always been the case. But with the move to digital journalism, it is becoming more prevalent. Although speed is becoming more important with digital journalism, accuracy should take precedence because it is the more ethical approach.
Journalism probably started with the cavemen, jokes BYU communications professor Clark Callahan. While not proved with evidence, his joke might have some truth. Simply defined, journalism is reporting news. Perhaps journalism has been around as long as news itself. Officially, though, the first known journalistic product dates back before 59 BC. Circulated around ancient Rome, Acta diurna was a newssheet that was published daily and posted in public areas. In the thousands of years since, journalism has changed many times, often due to technological changes. For example, the printing press allowed for more copies to be printed, the telegraph allowed news to travel greater distances, and so forth. But journalism has generally remained the same.
Arguably the biggest technological change in history is currently affecting journalism and journalists. Computers and the Internet have put news at the fingertips of consumers—and many consumers want information instantly and presented in an entertaining way.
The Business Model
It is important to understand the business model for journalism. Though many journalists are driven to communicate truth, the reality that is journalism is a business. Stories equal money in the journalism profession. Historically, news organizations received revenue via paid subscriptions and advertisements.
The move to digital has caused a problem with this model. Much of information online is free. Therefore, people may be less inclined buy a subscription to an online source because they could potentially find the information for free elsewhere. In fact, according to research by Reuters Institute, 67 percent of US respondents said no matter the cost they would never pay for news online. Revenue from subscriptions is falling. Also, people are becoming increasingly annoyed by and antagonistic towards online ads. That presents a challenge for the advertisers, who were the primary sources for revenue.
In order to even get that revenue, online stories have to get clicks. (This is similar to the past in that newspapers needed to get readers.) More clicks means more money. Therefore, the question is how can a news site get more clicks than others? A potential answer: be first and be better.
People today want to know what happens when it happens. When newspapers were the main form of communication, a news cycle ran about a day behind. If an event happened on Monday, a journalist would cover it and write about it, and then it would be printed in the Tuesday newspaper. That is not an option anymore. Today’s news tomorrow is old news. Today’s journalists unfortunately can’t always get accurate information out instantly. It takes time to find and synthesize information, especially correct information. An example can be seen in the recent Paris attacks. The number of deaths and injuries was not known for many hours. Neither was the number of attackers nor their methods or reasons for attacking. It took time to gather the information because the story was developing. Depending on the story, journalists often have to contact involved individuals (which can take a lot of time as the individuals are often trying to figure out the events themselves) and do research to understand context. For example, once I called five people in one hour for a story and no one answered. I had to wait for another five very stressful hours before hearing back from anyone. It takes time to contact individuals. Another time I spent at least 20 hours researching the context behind a very complex story. It takes time to understand the situation.
The Code of Ethics also states, “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of the news story.” Most journalists see the ethics in doing this—they misinform the public if they don’t update information. Plus, if correct information is public and their information is wrong, their ethos would likely be ruined. However, few people go back to see updates on a particular story. The damage of misinformation could already be done. BYU journalism professor Steven Thomsen uses the analogy, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t put it back in.” Therefore, while updates are important, it is more important to get the information right the first time.
Many journalists are handling this challenge effectively. They are balancing the demands for information now and the reality that it takes time to gather correct information. To use the Paris attacks again as an example, BBC was very upfront in their reporting that the story was developing. The online story was explicit explaining, “this is what we know.” This statement signaled to readers that some of the story was still unknown. The BBC was diligent is adding clearly labeled updates and were listed early so people saw the new information quickly when they came across the story.
Social Speed and Style
Many journalists and news organizations are communicating to consumers via social media. This means the style of journalism is changing, too. Social media platforms are allowing journalists to publish short bits of information immediately and constantly. Most journalists and news organizations have Facebook and twitter accounts that are being constantly updated. In fact, social media is becoming an important form of communication for journalists to be successful. However, this new form of communication creates a new set of challenges.
First, social media moves fast. On average, tweet is relevant for about fifteen minutes after it is tweeted. This ties into the push towards speed in journalism. Journalists have to tweet or post quickly on current issues or their information could get lost in the stream of information.
Second, one Facebook post and 140 characters usually do not have enough space to cover complex issues. Journalists have to be concise. While succinctness is good, it may not be adequate. Complete and accurate information takes space. For their ethos, journalists usually arrange their stories by giving the lead (that includes the reporter’s questions: who, what, when, where, why, how), background/context, and sources (like quotes, releases, studies, etc.), which can often shed light on the different sides of a story. It’s impossible to get all of that information in a social media message.
Hopefully, the consumer will click to read the actual article, but that leads into the next problem.
Third, journalists have to balance entertainment and professionalism. Click-bait articles abound on social media, but saying, “You’ll never believe what these people did in Paris” does not sound professional. Still journalists must write their social media posts in a compelling way to get consumers to move to the actual site. Then once on the site, the actual article must be written in a compelling way so that readers will continue reading.
Many journalists are using social media successfully. Social media is quick way to get concise information. The format forces journalists to be fast, concise, and compelling—all good traits.
However, journalists should be wary that the speed of social media does not take precedence over accuracy.
Journalism is becoming a fast business. It’s constantly moving and that’s one of the exciting aspects of being a journalist. Speed is not inherently bad. It can be good. The sooner information gets out, the sooner people get informed and can act if need be. However, accuracy can suffer if speed takes precedence. Journalists are looking for ways to keep ethics and high quality standards while balancing consumers’ demand for news now. Despite changes though, journalism is going strong and will likely continue to go strong.
“Humanity has always been storytellers,” Dr. Thomsen said. “That’s why we become journalists, so we can tell stories.” Journalists will continue to be storytellers and hopefully they will learn to successfully balance accuracy and speed.
Callahan, Clark. Informal interview with author. 12 Nov. 2015.
“Chapter Three: Paying for News.” Digital News Report 2015. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. 2015.
“Journalism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 2015.
“SPJ Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists. Web. 2014.
Thomsen, Steven. Interview with author. 13 Nov. 2015.
Breaking news image from http://www.thebreakingnews.co/