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Journalistic lessons from Sandy Hook – how to find facts among the fiction
The problems caused by the swift unfolding of details of news stories through social media are becoming increasingly familiar. And the Sandy Hook shootings provided a further example.
Craig Silverman, writing for Poynter, points out some of the early mistakes – both the killer and the weapon were wrongly identified while the killer's mother did not, as originally claimed, work at the school.
Silverman then turns to a commentary by Mathew Ingram of GigaOm who argued:
"For some, this proves that social media is not an appropriate tool for journalism, particularly real-time news reporting. But I think it shows something very different: I think this is just the way the news works now, and we had better get used to it."
Stop there for a moment. It's the way the news works NOW… Surely, it's the way journalism has always worked. While it's true that social media has speeded up the process, we tend to overlook that in the old hot metal days there were plenty of initial mistakes made by newspapers and broadcasters when big stories broke.
New media is not the real problem. We journalists are. The history of old media suggests that we have all been guilty in the past of factual inaccuracies, enhanced by rushing to judgment.
That is not to excuse mistakes. We should never forget that verification is the first rule of our trade. But it is a reminder that in our haste to report – providing that clichéd first rough draft of history – mistakes do occur.
The value of digital media is that the mistakes can be corrected quickly as the fog lifts and we are able to perceive reality. That is not to say that we should simply republish every rumour on Twitter and on Facebook as if they are "the truth". We still need to sort the facts from the fiction.
Silverman's advice on how to do that is therefore valuable. He suggests two things journalists can do avoid "amplifying false information and adding to speculation."
At heart, these could have been said 10 or 20 years ago – and probably were in j-schools across America – but he has given them a social media twist, making them more relevant.
First, the value of restraint. Silverman writes:
"Restraint is a value that's rarely celebrated, rarely highlighted… During real-time news events, quality sources of information are sometimes characterised by what they aren't reporting.
They are the ones holding back while others rush ahead. The ones sticking to a verification process and not being swayed by speculation or a desire for traffic and attention.
The value of restraint is difficult to quantify. You don't get more traffic for what you don't report. It therefore seems like a losing proposition. As is often said, people remember who got it wrong, not who got it right. Or who held back.
Not getting it wrong is one obvious value of restraint, but, again, that doesn't help you be part of the conversation.
During events such as the shooting in Newtown, one way to realise the value of restraint is to talk about what you aren't reporting. Carefully acknowledge the speculation (eg, "A Facebook profile is circulating, but we are not confident it is the shooter and that's why we are not sharing it").
This seems counterintuitive to the value of restraint, but today's information environment requires that restraint itself be shared, be publicised. It must become part of the process of real-time journalism, and part of the conversation.
That way people know who is and isn't reporting a given piece of information, and why. It will help bring a measure of order and explanation by reminding people that information is not universally verified.
Rather than remaining silent about what they refuse to report, or cannot verify, news organisations should be vocal about where they stand."
In other words, journalists should acknowledge what is being said, explain what it is and why, at the time of writing, it cannot be verified.
This may sound like having one's cake and eating it but, given the way news now emerges, this is the only sensible way to report.
Silverman's second point is about providing context to the process. This is all about transparency, which is undoubtedly easier to achieve with new media – and even more important than used to be the case.
He argues that we should push the boundaries of real-time journalism by offering our readers context about how we go about our work. "Explaining why you aren't reporting information is one way to do that," he writes.
Then he goes back to Ingram's article for this insight:
"In the past, this chaotic process of journalistic sausage-making was kept mostly hidden from TV viewers and newspaper readers.
Inside the newsrooms at these outlets, reporters and editors were frantically trying to collect information from wire services and other sources, verifying it and checking it as best they could, and then producing a report at some later point."
Yes, and there was no transparency as we juggled often conflicting "facts" filed by a variety of news agencies and staff reporters in order to carve out what we hoped was a fair account.
Now, online, Silverman says "explaining how we work can smooth the transition for the public."
And he recommends that it may be a good idea to compile a guide on how we go about this process of transparency. What's the best way of doing it?
I'm certainly in favour of that. Indeed, as a regular reader of The Guardian's live blogs, I have noted how the writers – news and sport – are developing a fresh approach to reporting. The conversational style allows for more openness.
It is possible to amend and clarify as the blog moves along in real time. During the riots last year, information from tweets was incorporated into the live blog. But we were made aware of the sources and were therefore able to judge on their credibility.
So it's clear that we are already developing an understanding of how to make the reporting process more transparent. Silverman's specific advice will surely improve that practice.