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Verify Before You Vilify

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 2nd, 2013 · On Second Thought
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 “Verify before you vilify."

In decades of reporting and teaching journalism ethics, I never read or heard a victim’s heartfelt admonition so clearly. The cry comes from Rollie Chance. NBC and CBS reporters mistakenly identified him as the Navy Yard shooter. 

“Verify before you vilify” is the perfect complement to our traditions of “check it out” and “get it first, but first get it right.” Rather, his experience is another in the mounting dung heap of “get it first and hope it’s right.” 

The First Amendment protects journalists' freedom to do harm. Audiences generally approve when investigative reporting exposes corrupt public officials. 

Within limits, the First Amendment protects our right to make mistakes, even if we defame someone. Victims of news media vilification can sue for libel, but such suits rarely succeed if the injured person is a public official or a public figure.

Private citizens harmed by false news media defamation — like Rollie Chance who was inadvertently and through no fault of his own thrust into the public eye — have a much better chance of winning a libel suit.

But as he told HuffingtonPost.com, that won’t repair the damage to his reputation or peace of mind. That rarely is possible; thus, “verify before you vilify.” 

Professionally and in my journalism ethics classes, we ask whether the harm we do is justified and to whom.  

I already know Rollie Chance’s answer. He was home when he heard news of the Navy Yard shooting. Chance is a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer. He’d worked on the fourth floor of Building 197 where the shootings took place.  

Some unnamed source tipped CBS and NBC News that Chance was the shooter. The error began when his old ID badge was found near the killings. 

Chance said his misery began when ABC called, looking for someone at Chance’s home number to interview. The caller explained that Chance was the Navy Yard perp. Chance did not identify himself to the caller or comment. 

Minutes later, Chance answered the door when FBI agents arrived, believing Chance killed himself after killing a dozen people at Navy Yard. 

"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy,” he told HuffPost about the unresolved personal problems this misidentification created. “I think there needs to be some accountability in reporting.

Instead of being the first reporter to have breaking news, you have to have accountability. Verify before you vilify."

Similarly casual journalism led the New York Post to picture and identify innocent young men as Boston Marathon bombers on Page 1. Someone told someone who told a reporter.  

Such missteps again ask how much verification we need before rushing to the Internet, to tweet or print, or to network audiences. In a universe of seemingly unlimited online information, what’s enough? 

A more recent example of how new/social media are pushing traditional ethics into the background was illustrated by a disturbing internal memo at Reuters, one of the historically great international news services. When they’ve been scooped, Reuters said, its reporters should grab the competition’s story and get it to clients as fast as they can. To me, this reflects an indifference to accuracy and plagiarism. 

For generations, using someone else’s news story has more or less been acceptable but only after fresh reporting. The Cincinnati Post and Enquirer did that when a local story was too good to ignore. In a real sense, they created a new story. 

The only problem came when an Enquirer editor demanded that we match a Post story, forgetting that the Post was matching our original story. 

Aware of the their pressure on reporters to get it first, many editors have told them: do not transmit — retweet — anything that they do not originate. It’s a reasonable rule, given the errors and embarrassments that have followed inappropriate tweets and efforts by hurried reporters and editors to give clients/readers the latest news, irrespective of its source. 

Reuters’ memo to reporters appears to step back from this caution and traditional ethics. According to thebaron.com, Reuters’ news editor for the Americas told colleagues:

“When a legitimate rival (anyone from our big-media competitors to authoritative blogs) gets a solid scoop that will either move a stock or be likely to influence traders and investors in your patch, you must pick it up immediately … if it’s a possible stock-mover. Then you should put out calls to sources and otherwise reach out for help.”

The Reuters editor added that, “Our financial clients pay us to give them news no one else has, of course, but they also count on us to tell them quickly about hot news from our rivals that will either move a stock — or even the market — or drive the conversation. When we delay news on a big story because we want to match it first or for whatever reason, we have denied our clients the best information available and so failed them and ourselves.

“Even in cases where a rival builds on one of our biggest scoops and takes it forward only incrementally, we should pick it up, then showcase our own earlier reporting with a link,” he said. “The temptation to dismiss a scoop out of pride, in other words, should be a warning sign that we’re about to make a major mistake. Our customers come first, even when it hurts.”

Bull. Thebaron.com quotes a longtime Reuters correspondent and consultant, Bob Evans, wisely calling his employer to account. Reuters, Evans said, was departing from long-established practices and embracing an “ethically dubious” substitute.  

“Is there not a great danger that by so doing Reuters could be, on occasion, actively complicit in disseminating at best misinformation and at worst disinformation? I can recall several occasions in Moscow, Mexico City, Paris and other places where I served when picking up market-moving opposition reporting — that subsequently proved to be incorrect — could have proven at best a setback for one's position vis-a-vis local sources and officials and at worst positively dangerous, for the uppicking reporter’s future in the country and even for his bureau’s continued existence there. 

“Our instructions were always clear: ‘Do everything possible to match a major opposition story from equally reliable sources as theirs, or to obtain a formal denial. But never pick it up, even indirectly, or knock it down without solid information to go on.’”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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