The Journalist's Dilemma: First or Right?

by - May 23, 2012

Social media - love it or hate it, it's not going anywhere, and it's posing quite the dilemma for journalists regardless of the media with which they work.

As a society, we've gotten used to having instant access to information. So much so that we've come to expect it. We carry our smart phones, tablets and/or laptops everywhere with us to stay linked to the world. Our emails come to our phones and we're constantly updating our statuses or sending out a new tweet. The same has come to be expected of the media.

As our dependence on social media and the internet increases, and it will, the handprint of journalists all across the globe will evolve. We're already adapting to the never-idle world of social media, and as such the premise of being 'first' is changing.

But I can't help but wonder if our dedication to being first isn't overshadowing our ethical duties to getting it right.

I've talked before about my attachment to being ethical when it comes to my job. I like to have the facts and have them double-checked before I run a story. I don't believe in running retractions simply because we weren't patient enough to get all of the information we needed before reporting something.

My station competes against two other local stations and four or so area stations, as well as several newspapers and a seldomly-right online news source. We constantly work to keep our website up-to-date with all the latest details of every story. Then there's the Facebook page to consider, the Twitter site and the pressing decision of whether to send a text alert. And of course, we're expected to be first.

As journalists we have a duty to keep the public informed in an unbiased way. The information we present to our audiences should be right the first time and not just as an afterthought.

Just because we hear reports of a shooting over the scanner doesn't mean we should immediately send out a text alert without confirming that it's actually happened. All too often though that's exactly what we do, following it up with a 'false alarm' retraction text.

Jumping the gun is dangerous (no pun intended). As members of the media, we should be observers and reporters. We shouldn't be getting involved in the stories we cover unless it's for a damn good reason like uncovering corruption or pushing for reform.

When we fail to report just the facts, we can predetermine the outcome of an investigation or trial and even sway a political election. It's tough to keep your emotions out of your stories, but it's what you have to do. Just because you feel like someone is guilty doesn't mean it's your duty to convince everyone else of it. Nor should we always report everything we know.

It's a fine line we journalists tread. Our toes are always just inches from the finish line, and we can always hear the pounding feet of our competitors. But in the end we must remember that being first isn't commendable when what we're reporting isn't accurate. Will your audience understand that or even appreciate your efforts? Probably not, but if you're not pissing people off then you're probably not doing your job right.

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