NOTE: If you missed the previous installments, here is Part 1 and Part 2. Also, since I have nothing to post for Friday and Saturday yet anyway… and the subject seems timely, I am posting the last 2 blogs today and tomorrow (Friday). The series is complete, to the best of my ability. Thank you for taking the time to read it. Comments are always welcome.
SOURCES: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE ‘WHAT THE HELL’
For this installment (3) of ‘Is your news biased’, I will use an actual news story, reported by 3 different news agencies, to show how sources are cited, and considered for the purpose of determining whether (and how much of) the information is included in a report.
For now, know these 4 rules regarding sources in journalism:
- The source must be credible. (i.e. The person is an expert or professional in the field/subject and/or THE witness in the form of the accused or accuser…)
- The source must be appropriate and PRESENT at the event in question.
- The source must be corroborated (supported) by at least one other individual. (The lower on the totem pole, the more sources are required… sorry, that’s just how it is.) The only allowance for the 1 source is for instances of whistleblowers and/or high-impact stories that have been determined by the editorial staff to be worth the risk of ‘being wrong’.
- The source’s credentials must be confirmed, as well as corroborated. (i.e. If someone is reporting how a company they work for was falsifying records, they have to actually work for said company, if they say they were present at the event – someone else needs to have seen them there, etc.)
A Real News Story:
For this discussion, I offer a paraphrased version of a news story that I experienced a few years ago. Okay, it was more like 5 years, but I remember it like it was yesterday. And though details may be foggy, I will use creative license to maintain the spirit of the event. And yes, it actually happened.
I was at the gym one day, alternating between the bike, the elliptical, and the tread mill. The gym I attended always had 4 televisions going at once, side by side. 3 were always on the news channels, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. The other one always played music videos. There were headphone attachments on the machines, but I often just listened to the music channel while I exercised. Still, I would watch the stories as they were reported at the bottom of the screen and if something particularly interesting popped up, I would switch channels.
Enter THE DAY OF THE SUSPICIOUS PACKAGE.
CNN: “A suspicious package was discovered outside a government building in Philadelphia this morning. Firefighters and Law Enforcement are on the scene. The building and surrounding area have been evacuated.”
MSNBC: “A suspicious package considered by law enforcement to be a bomb has shut down traffic in front of a government building in Philadelphia. The building and surrounding area were evacuated. In the wake of the bombing incident in Boston (?) the people in the area are on edge.”
Fox News: “TERROR ON THE STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA! A BOMB HAS BEEN DISCOVERED OUTSIDE THE GOVERNMENT BUILDING!”
I watched, with a little grin on my face as the story progressed. CNN’s story stayed pretty much the same, with a few interviews from bystanders, some experts in the field hawking their knowledge, but for the most part, they sat back and waited for sources to pan out…
Meanwhile… MSNBC continued reminding us of previous attacks.
And Fox News all but had us at war with Saudi Arabia.
The real story ended up being that it was an abandoned duffle bag with nothing more than boring supplies for, was it gym clothes? I don’t recall.
CNN: “The suspicious package outside of the government building in Philadelphia was determined by police on the scene to be an abandoned clothing bag.” Basically…‘nothing else to report’.
MSNBC: “Police determined the suspicious package outside the government building in Philadelphia was not a bomb. The area has been cleared for workers to return. But the city is still on edge.”
Fox News: “WHERE ARE YOUR CHILDREN GOING TO SCHOOL?! ARE THEY BEING TAUGHT ISLAM?” (Okay, that wasn’t the story that they followed up with, but they did NO retraction, NO explanation. They simply moved on to the next sexy story…)
So, there you have it. The Good, The Bad, and the What the Hell, respectively.
Of note, it is not uncommon for stories to get reported with erroneous information. It happens. It is sometimes unavoidable, especially with high-profile, or high-impact stories. (Think of the article about the rape accusations that turned out false…)
However, it is a show of journalistic integrity and humility for a news organization to ADMIT when a story turns out to be incorrect, lacking in details (or context), or outright false. Regardless of the reasons. I’m personally annoyed that newspapers are the worst with retractions… I have seen them print something full-front-page font size 20, and a week later, the retraction appears at the bottom of page 3 in font size 4. Really guys?
It is also a show of journalistic integrity to not “scream FIRE! in a crowded theater”. (Yes, I and all my journalism teachers ‘love’ that example…)
The press is a part of our society. It is one of the threads that hold us together. And that responsibility should not be taken lightly, or forsaken for the purpose of ad clicks or to appease advertisers.
News is to INFORM. Not INCITE. Please remember that when you watch the news, or read an article.
NEXT WEEK TOMORROW FOR “WHAT MAKES A STORY NEWSWORTHY”…