By the very nature of the field, journalists are subject to a degree of public scrutiny and standards that others are not. They are held to moral, ethical, and professional excellence because, as Phillip L. Graham states, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”
Therefore, journalists understandably receive heavy backlash for errors, misstatements, and false reporting, especially in the frenzy of reporting a quickly-developing story, whether it be a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or a presidential election. In the age of the Internet, the possibility for error is exponentially higher. Journalists have almost endless sources, and sifting through mountains of material to present facts in virtually live-time leaves more than sufficient room for error. Often, verification is sacrificed for immediacy. Journalists face a constant balancing act between truth and time.
Today, journalists’ audiences are also their sources. The bottom line, then, is to respect your audience: both when they are your sources and when they are your readers. Here are five rules to respect your audience in all roles that they play.
Audience as a source
- Verify and your sources when using their media or quotes. Platforms such as Storyful demonstrate how to verify even the most anonymous sources through comprehensive Internet searches and networking.
- Confirm multiple, deep sources. Don’t attribute all of your information to just one source. Ask questions, follow up, and talk to other people. Relying on one story from one person discredits both the journalist and the source.
Audience as readers
- Remember that your readers will place trust in your sources. Verify that your sources are trustworthy and reliable. This can be as simple as a verified Twitter handle or as complex as digging through their Tweets to understand their perspective, experience, and context.
- “Get it first, but first get it right.” There is a huge amount of pressure to break a story, both from audiences and from networks vying for access to sources and ratings. But the consequences of reporting errors create even more pressure to perform. Prioritize presenting only confirmed facts.
- If you don’t know, admit that you don’t know. This is a fine line. To be a journalist and to not be in the know is a contradiction. But to be an honest journalist surrounded by journalists pretending to know can protect you from major backlash.