If some information is already out there, do you need to say so?
This is a conundrum faced by many journalists, though not everyone sees it as a conundrum.
For example, if media in Vietnam report news about a missing flight that is the subject of reports all over the world, what do you do?
Tuoi Tre reports that Vietnamese Navy has confirmed that Malaysia Airlines #MH370 crashed into the sea 153 miles south of Phu Quoc island.
— Alan Soon (@alansoon) March 8, 2014
It’s attributed to a fellow news outlet, and an established one to boot. It’s attributed to the local navy. So, what do you do?
Well, that report was false, notes Circa editor-in-chief Anthony De Rosa in “The network effect of bad information,” a piece he wrote for Medium about the benefits of waiting — of not passing along everything you see and hear.
His concern is that so many journalists put restraint aside and push on:
The problem comes from people, the worst offenders being people ostensibly working as journalists, that share reports they haven’t followed up on, and they need to tell you about it right! now!
This piece builds on his contribution to the Verification Handbook that came out in January, and which I edited.
De Rosa is a great messenger of restraint, as he’s one of those journalists who seems to have a neuroconnection to news on Twitter. He surfaces an inordinate amount of chatter and information, but still finds a way to wait.
As he wrote in his case study for the Handbook:
Remember that the information on social media should be treated the same as any other source: with extreme skepticism.
For the most part, I view the information the same way I would something I heard over a police scanner. I take in a lot and I put back out very little. I use the information as a lead to follow in a more traditional way. I make phone calls, send emails and contact primary sources who can confirm what I’m hearing and seeing (or not).
That brings us back to the supposed navy report. Where is the original article that mentions it? Where was the navy’s statement? How did the Vietnamese paper get this information if no one else has it? Had the navy been releasing information this way recently? Those are essential questions to answer before relaying anything.
As a rule, local media are often a great resource on a story. They are on the ground, have connections to key sources, and know the terrain.
But they can be wrong, too. So they shouldn’t get a pass — or a pass along. You take what they say, and you follow your verification process to get answers.
But the above tweet was retweeted hundreds of times, and picked up by media as something out there that they needed to relay.
“This isn’t even reporting, this is second hand sharing of information, it’s the telephone game,” De Rosa writes. “The excuse for this type of reporting is “well, we sourced it to xyz” as if it’s ok to share information you didn’t bother to follow up on, shrug and say ‘they said it, not me’ when it’s knocked down.”
If you do the digging yourself, make the extra call, then you could have something material to offer, rather than having to parrot someone else. But in the meantime, that requires being silent, or sharing that you’re not sharing something because it requires more reporting.
Showing restraint is difficult when your feel the rush of news. But in an information environment when everyone is reporting, retweeting and regurgitating, silence is a damn good strategy.
“During real-time news events, quality sources of information are sometimes characterized by what they aren’t reporting,” I offered in a previous post.
Because, as De Rosa writes, “simply attributing bad information doesn’t absolve you from passing along bad information.”