Be aggressive – and responsible – in pursuit of news

by | Mar 1, 2012 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/March 2012

Nothing is more important to establishing a community newspaper as the premier source for local information than being the first with the news. Hand in hand, however, is being responsible in your coverage.

Social media allows newspapers to deliver information 24/7. The landscape allows nondaily newspapers to level the playing field with their daily counterparts. At the same time, Twitter and Facebook and other tools demand constant oversight of editors.

Consider this incident by Bob Salladay, a senior editor at California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Salladay was riding on a train when he realized he was sitting near Santa Ana City Council Member Michele Martinez. He listened to her phone conversation and tweeted about what she said about her campaign. He also tweeted that he was “99 percent sure it was Michele Martinez.”

His tweets became the subject of news stories and generated conversation in the journalism community.

For Salladay’s good fortune, the woman turned out to be Martinez. But the fact that he correctly identified her is secondary to the questions raised about the journalistic practices. You’re the editor. Would you have tweeted the council member’s comments? Would you have published a story based on the tweets?

The medium may have changed, but similar principles should guide fact-gathering and reporting.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek and report the truth –journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. The code also stresses accountability – clarifying and explaining news coverage and inviting dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.

But editors and reporters should not need a formal code to judge their actions. A handful of common-sense questions should guide their decisions:

What if you were the subject? Is it fair to be quoted when you are under the assumption you are having a private conversation – even if your comments can be overhead by others?

Did you talk with the subject of the story? Most individuals expect to be contacted as part of the news gathering. It’s common courtesy and professional conduct expected of reporters.

How will you justify a decision? Salladay and his supporters defend his practice on the premise that he was “tweeting a snapshot in time of what she was saying; that’s how you use Twitter.” The medium should not be an excuse for bypassing accepted journalistic practices.

Is the report fair? A story – a tweet – may be factual – but does that guarantee balance? Omission of certain information, or failure to seek a response from a party, can put a completely different slant on a story.

Make no mistake that individuals, once they enter the public arena, place their everyday conduct under a microscope. At the same time, public officials have private lives, too. Editors and reporters should use every right afforded them under state and federal laws to monitor, report and comment on the actions of public officials. Every right, however, also carries an accompanying responsibility.

Social media may provide shortcuts to posting news as it happens. But the tools are not intended to short-circuit the principles of sound journalism.