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An idea which threatens trust in MSM

The idea that mainstream media sites sites covering breaking news should report not only the conventional edited stories but unconfirmed information, possibly in a blog, has been doing the rounds recently.

It has been suggested that it would add transparency to the to the reporting process. It seemed to me to be a wrong-headed idea and dangerous: it would amount to the publishing of unconfirmed rumour.

I held off posting on the subject because I feared I was missing something: there must have been something I had misunderstood.

When JD Lasica, one of the biggest thinkers on media changes who describes himself as “one of the world’s leading authorities on citizens media and the revolution in user-created media” posted on the subject, I decided to respond.

He had written at his New Media Musings blog:

For years, mostly in talks at conferences, I’ve been suggesting that when news organizations cover breaking news stories, reporters and editors post updates with categories such as “what we know” and “what we don’t know at this time.” Dan Gillmor expressed support for such a new media convention when we chatted about breaking news a couple of months ago.

He then quoted a letter in the New York Times which said:

Why doesn’t The Times set up a special section online, perhaps called “New York Times Online Raw” to present breaking news that has not yet been formalized for the print edition? Provide a link to these stories on the Times home page, with a disclaimer at the top of the “Raw” page explaining that the stories are breaking news and have not yet been thoroughly fact-checked and edited.

Still not wanting to get the wrong end of the stick, I posted a questioning comment on Lasica’s blog last night:

I am puzzled. You seem to be approving of the NYT letter but in 2002 you wrote in the Online Journalism Review: “But the underlying ethical considerations of journalism transcend the medium. In other words, journalism demands high standards, no matter the medium.

For online journalism today, the ethical bottom line is this: I don’t know of a single online news publication that believes a story unfit for print is fair game for the Web.”

Have you changed your mind?

This morning he has responded with this:

Interesting that you’d cite that long-ago article. It’s somewhat related, but I was really talking about something else back then – the printing of rumor and gossip. I think a breaking news story in the online medium is a different animal. Rather than withhold information that a newsroom obtains but can’t immediately verify, it would be a service to provide the information but in the proper context, saying here’s what we’ve been able to verify, here’s what we’ve heard but can’t yet verify, and here is what others are reporting. I think it goes to the immediacy of the medium, so it’s really not about lowering standards.

It has always been an editorial function, in the UK at least, to examine unconfirmed information and consider whether it should be printed or broadcast. A reputation for reliability depends, in a large part, on how carefully these decisions are made, especially in the heat of a breaking story.

To loosen these controls on information, however it is labelled, would inevitably lead to inaccurate and sensational information being published. And this would damage the credibility of the publisher.

Does anyone really believe that readers would pass the information on with all the caveats? In breaking news the dangers would be at their greatest.

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