Jumping the Gun  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2009

Jumping the Gun   

The rush to post is no excuse for jettisoning journalistic standards. Online Exclusive posted 2/12/09 11:20 a.m.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

T he tension between speed and accuracy in journalism is hardly new. But, like so many other things, it's been torqued up mightily in the Internet era.

No more waiting for the next edition or the next newscast to get the story out. Just push the button the minute it's ready.

Or sometimes before it's ready.

A classic example of the temptations of the Web occurred during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, as the Internet was emerging as a major journalistic force. On February 4, 1998, the Wall Street Journal posted a story saying that a White House steward had told a federal grand jury he had seen the president and the intern alone in a study near the Oval Office. Trouble was, it did so without waiting for callbacks from the White House and the steward's lawyer.

The story quickly collapsed, and the paper retracted it.

Of course, this wasn't a historic first. Newspapers and broadcast news outlets have been getting stories wrong as long as there have been newspapers and broadcast news outlets.

But the sheer speed of the Internet had raised the stakes. It had induced the Journal, then as now one of the nation's very best papers, to go with a story before checking it out, violating that basic rule of journalism, getting comment from all sides.

"We all try to be competitive," a Journal editor told AJR at the time, "and sometimes that can lead to this."

Last Sunday, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt took his newspaper to task for a story it posted after Caroline Kennedy withdrew her bid to be appointed to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. The piece he analyzed, headlined "Taxes and a Housekeeper Are Said to Derail Kennedy's Bid," had an unnamed source making such an allegation but provided nothing to back it up. The article also featured a blind quote trashing Kennedy. The thrust of the story was that Kennedy hadn't really taken herself out of the running; instead, she wasn't heading to Washington because Gov. David Paterson had numerous problems with her candidacy.

In subsequent versions of the Web story, the offending quote was paraphrased and more context was added. By the time the story was published the next day, it downplayed the squabbling between Paterson's and Kennedy's people and took a more forward-looking approach to the appointment saga.

Hoyt concluded: "I don't agree that the first version of the story was appropriate; it should not have been published with the offending quotation and without more context and caution." He did give the paper props for continuing to pursue the messy saga. It ultimately published an anatomy of what the paper called "an orchestrated effort to discredit" Kennedy after she pulled out.

Trouble is, the Times allowed itself to be used by that "orchestrated effort."

The trajectory of the story from Web version to later Web version to print dovetails with the views of enthusiasts for a particular approach to reporting on the Web. According to this view, it's OK to get a story out there before it's fully formed. After all, the Web is a self-correcting mechanism; new details will emerge and the truth will out. That's the defense often used for the misinformation that sometimes shows up on anyone-can-play Wikipedia.

There's one big problem with this just-throw-it-out there approach: It has real-world consequences. Once bogus allegations are in play, they often take on a life of their own. Many people will remember the vicious allegations about Kennedy and never catch up to the real story. The damage has been done.

The Internet, like newspapers and television and radio, is a platform. It is a very exciting platform. But that's all it is. Journalism remains journalism, no matter how it is disseminated. Standards matter. Accuracy matters. Context matters.

The rush to post is no excuse for jettisoning our core values.



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