Beyond the Headlines: Attribution, Verification and the Time Lapse
Poynter faculty members Scott Libin, Aly Colón, Bob Steele and Kelly McBride reflect on the issues raised by the mining coverage.
Scott Libin, Poynter Leadership Faculty, writes:
This case reminds us of a lesson we learned, at least in part, from Hurricane Katrina: Even when plausibly reliably sources such as officials pass along information, journalists should press for key details -- respectfully and courteously, but assertively. Mr. Mayor, tell us more about how you found out. Chief, can we talk to the officer or officers who actually responded to those rapes? Governor, you tell us "they" say 12 are alive; who, in this case, are "they"?
If we believe that when your mama says she loves you, you should check it out, surely what the mayor or police chief or governor says deserves at least some healthy skepticism and verification. I understand how emotion and adrenaline and deadlines affect performance. That does not excuse us from trying to do better.
The matter of the miners also highlights the importance of maintaining newsrooms that encourage contrarians, where it is safe to give voice to doubts or concerns, no matter how inconvenient or unpopular they might be. Somewhere, at some point in the early morning hours of January 4, somebody must have called attention to the lack of attribution and primary sources in the initial reports of 12 survivors. Was that person recognized, respected and encouraged -- or ridiculed, shouted down and dismissed?
Aly Colón, Poynter's Reporting, Writing & Editing Group Leader, writes:
Some may fear for the credibility of newspapers in light of the premature headlines heralding a "Miner Miracle." Others may wonder if early print deadlines contributed to inaccurate accounts. And still others may see all this as representative of what ails newspapers in an age of technological ascendancy and online immediacy.
What I wonder is this: How is this any different from when radio breathed fresher news into our ears and television transmitted scenes as they happened right before our eyes? Did not newspapers face similar challenges to its static deadlines and the time disparity between publishing and delivery?
Newspapers have always provided snapshots of the news. The time between when the snapshots are taken and when they are viewed has narrowed with each new news platform.
In the long run, however, it's not the time that you receive the news that determines its credibility. It's how you handle the time you have to gather the news, and how you use the time to decide how you will present it.
Even radio, television and Web sites, with their immediacy, can get the news wrong. What matters more is how they go about getting it right.
Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, writes:
Certainly we should do our professional best to give readers, listeners and viewers substantive and specific attribution in our stories. Attribution supports both accuracy and authenticity. Ideally, strong and clear attribution heightens the credibility of the stories.
To be sure, the attribution within stories is reflective of the rigor of the newsgathering process. As reporters, we should be respectfully pushing our sources by asking, "How do you know that?" As editors and producers, we should be prosecuting the reporters' work, asking, "Do we have a high level of confidence in that information? Is it verifiable?"
Journalists -- whether working in the field or in the newsroom -- should be professionally skeptical. Journalists should push constantly the "what if?" button. "What if that information isn't true?" "What if the source is wrong?" That professional skepticism is part of a vigorous checks and balances process that debunks rumors, reveals false assumptions and clarifies misconceptions. Ideally, professional skepticism produces high-quality, believable reports.
It's possible this process wasn't as rigorous as we wish it would have been in the breaking news story about the fate of the miners in West Virginia.
It's reasonable to examine whether reporters on the scene could have pushed harder and further on West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III and other officials to seek verification when it was believed the miners were alive. It's reasonable to consider whether editors should have toned down some of the "miracle" headlines and should have placed attribution for the "they're alive" reports much higher in the stories.
That said, I don't believe this case is one to dwell on as a major failure of news organizations, at least not in the erroneous reporting that the miners were believed to be alive. Frankly, when the Governor said they were alive and when the church bells started ringing and the families started celebrating, it would have been extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to "hold the story" pending more verification. Sadly, this is one of those cases where the truth was tainted by the most unfortunate sort of miscommunication. But let's not be trapped in the "media blame game" syndrome on this part of a tragic story. The first reports on television and radio and the newspaper headlines were wrong in many cases, but the circumstances of this case were quite unusual and terribly unfortunate.
Perhaps we fell prey to the classic story line of "trapped miners" and pushed the story too heavily on relatively slow news days.However, we can and should re-examine our overall coverage of the West Virginia mining disaster story. Perhaps too many news organizations played the story too prominently in the previous 48 hours. Perhaps we fell prey to the classic story line of "trapped miners" and pushed the story too heavily on relatively slow news days. Perhaps we went overboard with the above-the-fold stories and pictures. Perhaps we got carried away with the intensive coverage on cable news and talk programs.
Yes, there was a story to be reported from West Virginia from the moment the miners were trapped, continuing through to the search, rescue and recovery efforts. But it may be that the tone and the proportion of the coverage were out of whack.
Perhaps that's our major professional failure in this case. And maybe that error in judgment put us off balance when it came to reporting a crucial development in the case. Perhaps we were too quick to pull out the "miracle" headline because we had invested so much in the story.
Kelly McBride, Poynter's Ethics Group Leader, writes: I’m skeptical that many news consumers will criticize newspapers for getting the story wrong. I doubt that newspaper readers will turn this morning’s erroneous report into the tipping point that prompts them to cancel their subscriptions and install wireless Internet throughout their homes.
By the nature of their evolving news habits, people are getting smarter about the strengths and weaknesses of various media. Most realize that news such as weather, traffic and sports can be best found best found online or via broadcast outlets. Still, there remain more than a handful of curmudgeons ready to beat up the mainstream media for one more gigantic failure. But this time, at least, the critics are wrong.
The unusual aspects of this case included the dramatic nature of the information (“They’re alive”), its arrival on (or after) deadline and its reversal in the early morning hours.
Consider if the information reversal had happened at noon instead of 3 a.m. Had the morning’s headlines been undisputed, even for a few hours, no one would be questioning the accuracy of the print reporters. Instead, the public would be focused on the mining company’s capacity to orchestrate a rescue operation. Citizens would be relying on journalists to ask the tough questions, to be the watchdog.
Mistakes made in print are cruel and harsh, much more so than mistakes made in pixels. In print, you usually can’t take it back for at least 24 hours.
That means that print journalists must be even more cautious and accurate than their colleagues working in broadcast and online. The public is much less willing to forgive a mistake made in print than one broadcast or published on the Internet.
The lessons of the West Virginia mining explosion and the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina remind us that accuracy is more than just printing what we believe to be the facts. It’s also a matter of bringing the audience along, letting them in on how we know what we know.
Readers would be even more forgiving if today’s stories stated: “Families and friends of the missing miners celebrated news of a miracle in the early morning hours Wednesday. The governor said the miners were alive. The friends and families said they were alive. Both said they were informed by sources within the rescue command center. The mining company had not made an official statement as of 1 a.m.”
But many stories failed to provide that context. They simply reported that the miners were alive. The families were overjoyed and the choirs were singing hymns of praise. By the time our alarm clocks went off, it was all wrong. It could have been different.
As print journalists realize their faults and limitations are more obvious in an era of choice, they are also learning to use their Web sites to complement their work and to compensate for their shortcomings.
Many of their readers have already learned that, after they’ve watched the TV news at night and read the paper in the morning, the next best source of updated information is an online site published by a print or broadcast newsroom.