In real-time journalism, declaring what you won’t report can be just as important as what you will

It started with confusion at the scene of the crime. A source told CNN the killer was named Ryan Lanza.

Soon several news organizations published images from a Facebook profile belonging to a man with that name. Some of them declared he was the killer.

He wasn’t.

After we learned the calibre of the weapon used in the shooting, people began circulating images of large assault weapons, saying this was the gun used. Those early weapons were off the mark as well.

As has been noted by many, the errors continued. Adam Lanza’s mother didn’t work at the school, the students who died were in first grade, not kindergarten.

“For some, this proves that social media is not an appropriate tool for journalism, particularly real-time news reporting,” writes Mathew Ingram at GigaOm. “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.”

I’d suggest two things journalists can do during these situations to help ensure they’re playing a constructive role, rather than amplifying false information and adding to speculation.

The value of restraint

One thing that struck me on Friday was the news organizations who didn’t spread the Facebook profile, who held back and showed restraint on that and other points.

When information is abundant, rumors are easy to stoke and disseminate. When others have already put speculative information out there, showing restraint may seem difficult. But at that moment it can be a competitive differentiator.

Restraint is a value that’s rarely celebrated, rarely highlighted. It mattered a lot on Friday, and would have helped spare a lot of injurious speculation if it had been practiced by more journalists and news organizations.

During real-time news events, quality sources of information are sometimes characterized 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 realize the value of restraint is to talk about what you aren’t reporting. Carefully acknowledge the speculation (e.g., “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 publicized. 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 organizations should be vocal about where they stand.

Providing context to the process

Andy Carvin, the most experienced practitioner of real-time process journalism, was in full force on Friday, using his Twitter network as an extended newsroom to help him surface, debunk and verify claims and information.

At one point I saw Carvin tweet out a meesage to help explain his level of restraint:

I’d encourage Carvin and others pushing the boundaries of real-time journalism to regularly offer that kind of reminder and context about how they work. Explaining why you aren’t reporting information is one way to do that.

One key thing for journalists to realize is that this transparency is new to the public, too. Ingram writes:

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.

Explaining how we work can smooth the transition for the public.

On Friday, I saw at least a few of Carvn’s followers either ask him for this kind of background, or react in ways that suggested they don’t understand how he works. (Some people understood it and are still troubled by it.)

I agree with Wendy Kloiber: an online primer would be a great way to help people understand this new form of journalism. I don’t doubt Carvin’s book will be great, but it’s not the right format for providing background and context during a breaking news event.

Maybe practitioners could write their own brief primers and link to  them from their Twitter profiles and blogs.

Carvin himself acknowledged that each new breaking news event requires him to educate new people on how he works. Why not write a quickie guide, make it public, and link frequently?

A backgrounder would also provide a useful retort when people encounter Carvin’s work and wonder what he’s doing.

If news is forever changed and the flurry of confusion and contradictions we saw on Friday, and during Hurricane Sandy, are the new norm, then it’s up to journalists to think about what this means for their workflow and approach.

I’d like to see restraint practiced and publicized, and to see more journalists speak up about why a given piece of information hasn’t met their standards.

It also means we have to provide the kind of background and context that can help the public understand the new rules and practices that drive our work.

Correction: The original version of this post included a misspelling of Newtown as Newton, and Twitter as Twtitter.

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  • Matthew Smith

    There is also a misspelling of “Carvin” as “Carvn”.

  • Bikem Ekberzade

    Having just written on new media and how its shaping us old school journalists, saw your piece. Great to see the discussion on journalistic ethics is flourishing (and not simply forgotten).. I was a bit worried it may have been:

  • West Seattle Blog

    Restraint is also more than a breaking-news-time value. And while that used to be a given, in a changing media ecosystem, it isn’t any longer. We have some rules such as no suspect-naming until charged – with the occasional exception (police circulating photo of sought suspect, etc.), and we do remind readers about them … we have to, because, for one thing, some (not all) of the old-media outlets in this area have different rules, and so comment discussions might include someone saying, “Well, (old-media outlet) published her name, why don’t you?” Same thing with what you show (covering a crime or crash, do you show injured victims? why or why not?). In the end, as with anything, the market will decide whether they appreciate your rules/style/etc. – or not. Being accessible to discuss it is important. So is being consistent – and explaining why you are digressing from your usual policy, if you decide to. – TR @ WSB

  • Alan Abbey

    We talked about this issue exactly today in National U’s JRN 656 – Ethics in the New Media Age. My students and I discussed the competitive pressures of reporting vs. the journalistic values of verifying information and not simply passing along unconfirmed material in the echo chamber just because someone else reported it. I will forward this article to them. Great post.