A danger to readers: the pressure to break news and its affect on accuracy

For most journalists, including those of the New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR), the goal of putting out content and information is to help inform and educate the public—with an “impartial” view. This common goal requires that a set of ethics be closely followed for most outlets.

As stated in their guiding principles, NPR says, “Our news content, whether on the radio, on the web, or in any other form, must attain the highest quality and strengthen our credibility. We take pride in our craft. Our journalism is as accurate, fair and complete as possible. Our journalists conduct their work with honesty and respect, and they strive to be both independent and impartial in their efforts. Our methods are transparent and we will be accountable for all we do.”

Those two organizations, both regarded as credible by society, face a challenge that all newspapers, magazines, television channels, radio stations and other outlets also deal with every day. Gaining a following and a loyal audience is something that every source covets.

To gain this following, news organizations strive to put out the most recent and most enticing content as quickly as possible. Interesting headlines sell and right now, sales are a point that are priority.

In this age, the building and maintaining of a following is becoming more difficult. Two short years ago, on March 26, 2014, Pew Research Center released a study on the state of the media. The circulation and sale of print sources has declined over the last few years and continues to do so in a digital age. For news magazines, the total decline in sales (until 2013), was 11%. For magazines, newspapers and other sources alike.


Image from: Pew Research Center

On top of the need of trying to gain loyal readers, the decrease in news consumption through print and television sources (11% drop in 2013 for all cable networks and a deep drop of 15.5% at MSNBC in 2013 too), creates pressure too. Some organizations are falling out completely in the digital age, Al Jazeera America signed off for the last time just last night, after operating for only three years.

Alison Collins, a third-year student at Loyola University Maryland, says that she gets her news from Twitter and the New York Times iPhone app. When Collins reads a news story, even a story regarding breaking news or a story that seems to need follow up, she reads only one version. In reflection, she calls that “selective exposure.”

The nation’s readers are becoming more isolated to a “reliable source” and less focused.

Following this mindset, news organizations seek to publish breaking news as quickly as possible while also releasing riveting feature stories. While doing so, in this digital age, the idea of “clicks” has become more important. Flashy but not necessarily accurate, headlines are increasingly common, as are short– and some long– stories that lack significant research.

The strain of breaking a news story can affect the accuracy of the information relayed– particularly in the digital age. One of the news industry’s most competitive points is speed, releasing a story first can be an enticing quality for a news organization. Despite the importance of accuracy, writers and editors can often be swept up in this need for speed and miss important details that can change the meaning of a story and its impact.

Breaking news is something that can be easily reported with misinformation—however, it can also be more easily followed up by a correction or update. Supposedly deeply researched form feature pieces, though, have also been released without proper fact checking. Even though the story form is longer and more thorough, editors’ often feel the need to release a shocking story before any other writer can get their hands on it.

The inaccuracies as a result of such pressures can be very dangerous for readers that are not stopping to think critically about an event or story. The issues with veracity that can occur are common enough that Reuters held a panel with Online News Association UK in 2014 on how digital journalists balance speed and accuracy. The panel was held in accordance to the Online News Association’s goal to “inspire excellence” among its journalists.

Following repeated occurrences of inaccuracy in journalism, such panels seem to be a necessity.

On November 19, 2014, an article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely (a journalist for Rolling Stone who has not tweeted or appeared to have written since late November 2014) was published in Rolling Stone regarding a rape case at the University of Virginia.

In Erdely’s version, a girl named Jackie (her identity was kept a secret for her own protection) was raped and assaulted by 7 brothers after being taken to a date party at the “upper-tier” frat Phi Kappa Psi. Over time, holes were discovered in her story. The Washington Post released a story shortly after the original “A Rape on Campus” revealing certain aspects of her process of piecing together the manner in which she gathered information for the story.

In the Washington Post’s article “Sabrina Rubin Erdely, woman behind Rolling Stone’s explosive U-Va. alleged rape story” the author, Paul Farhi, notes that Erdely knew that she wanted to write about campus rape but that she did not know which university would fit the description she was looking for. When entering a story with an aim, it is impossible for an author to remain unbiased– Erdely’s first fault.

Farhi also says that certain details included in Erdely’s article may have been alleged or only according to Jackie, the victim, but are written as facts. Additionally, Erdely claims that she could not confirm that she knew the names of Jackie’s attackers and that Jackie was thrilled to speak with her, despite her refusal after the release of the story to speak to other media personnel.

Following the release of the Post’s article, Rolling Stone made the decision to look outside their paper for closure and confirmation on the veracity of Erdely’s story. Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, released a statement above their findings.

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Dana was not the first editor to have experienced the frustration and pain that comes from the dishonesty of a reporter and personal neglect to fact check what appears to be an amazing story.

In late 1980, the Washington Post itself released a story called “Jimmy’s World” by Janet Cooke, a rising reporter . Similarly to Erdely at Rolling Stone, Cooke was not questioned by editor Bob Woodward or other employees of the Post.

With sources that were exclusive and victims, like Erdely’s “Jackie” and Cooke’s “Jimmy”, editors have to place trust in their reporters for the protection of a source. However, with such extraneous stories, it would be beneficial for editors to be a bit more skeptical. The desire to publish stories that seem so rare often seems to outweigh the need to take the time to verify information– often leading to consequence.

Benjamin Bradlee, then-executive editor of the Washington Post made said in April 1981 that “We’ve got to be sure that our trust in reporters is not betrayed again and in five days, I’m not sure how to do that. She was a one-in-a-million liar,” in regard to Cooke.

Trusting a reporter is a difficult line to walk for editors that feel the need to break news or a story as quickly as possible but one that must be taken more seriously than it has in the past.

Both Cooke and Erdely’s stories held national impacts. The impacts of “A Rape on Campus” is still having an effect on the University of Virginia and society today. Both also dealt with hot and sensitive topics– making them more appealing to publish and giving them a greater impact. However, that appeal must be toed with suspicion, after all, it is dangerous to release information that can be understandably immediately accepted as true by the public and have the ability create a national dialogue.

With today’s audiences skipping their own research, trusting Twitter and singular sources, it is more important than ever to ensure the accuracy of an article before clicking publish, especially with how easy it is for just anyone to release information instantaneously. It is important that well-respected and verified organizations take a moment to pause before submitting to the pressure of the increasingly speedy news turnover, in the name of protecting validity.