In Defence of the Newsroom

The way we get our news isn’t changing. It has already changed. So if you’re still talking about it as if it’s about to change, well you’re already behind.

Not that the changed landscape is entirely a bad thing. Personally I don’t think the world (or at least the developed world) has ever been this well equipped to hold amazing conversations about truly newsworthy topics over a few pints. It really is a shame then, that lots of us mostly share our views via social media instead of having real conversations. But that is a totally different blog.

But why leap to the defence of the newsroom then? It’s really quite simple. Accountability.

Barely a week passes without a story ‘breaking’ on social media about the untimely death of some famous figure or a story about a company being bought out. And most of these stories turn out to be totally bogus. Sure the odd one is true, but the majority of them are completely untrue. And we accept these untruths as part of doing business on the internet. Like trolls, it’s just part of the fabric and we roll on to the next topic fairly seamlessly.

But between the ‘breaking’ of such a story and it turning into an actual news item or it being proven to be false a few things will happen:

  1. A researcher/producer or someone else on the newsroom floor will see the story flash up on their feed or screen
  2. This person will then look to verify the story. They’ll reach out to managers or agents or their own sources to see if there is any credibility to the story. And in the instance of a first source confirming its veracity they’ll look (most newsrooms anyway) to confirm this with a second source
  3. When it’s been found to be bogus they drop it. They might send a missive via Twitter saying reports have been refuted etc, but alot of the time they won’t even bother doing that.

OK, this isn’t an exact timeline and not every newsroom goes through this process but my point is that although reporting ‘breaking’ stories will drive traffic — if they’re not true you have a bigger problem coming down the line. If people constantly get false leads and news from you, even if you’re just a blogger with a Twitter handle, when people realise they can’t trust your content your traffic will dry up. And when traffic dries up so does revenue.

It takes time to verify a story. The funny thing is that many people on seeing something big (and real) on Twitter or Facebook will immediately turn to their trusted newsroom. And when the story doesn’t appear within seconds of their first seeing it then their first instinct is to deride “old media” for not keeping up with the times. Meanwhile the newsroom are in a holding pattern. They put up a breaking news banner and their researchers and producers are scrambling to verify the story, find experts, create the narrative and substantiate everything they are about to say. But the very people who are are complaining about the slow reactions are the very ones who will deride the newsroom when they get their facts wrong.

They’re also the type of people who will start spreading rumours and spurious detail on social channels because they think they know more than the newsrooms.

Like they did with Sunil Tripathi. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing civilians decided it was their duty to help the FBI and BPD find the culprits of this atrocity. Individually they trawled through all the photos and videos available, posting their theories on sites like Reddit and 4Chan. The result of their ‘investigations’ led to Sunil being identified as the culprit. Even though he wasn’t and the cops weren’t even looking at him for it. This guy’s life was put in danger because people posted his name and photo on social. Without verification or fact checking. Fortunately nothing happened to Sunil. But what if it had?

Google it. It’s really quite interesting and mostly just scary.

And they are also the ones who won’t believe something is actually happening fully until a newsroom finally reports the full details.

You can’t have it both ways. You either want quick, reactionary news that may or may not be true. Or you want the news. Verified and fact checked.

And lest you forget we hold our news outlets to the highest standards, as well we should. And I don’t just mean the RTÉ or the BBC. Newsrooms now include the likes of Buzzfeed and Yahoo and Vice and they too must adhere to these standards too. If a report or news story proves to be false or full of untruths we demand action. We want anchors fired and producers hung out to dry and the web team to be strung up. So that they check their facts is obviously quite important.

So that’s why I defend newsrooms. Because without them who will do the fact checking and verify sources and present all the facts. I want my news to be newsworthy, not rumour and suposition. Which, I suppose, is why I get so annoyed when I hear professional news anchors ask the most ridiculous questions of their reporter colleagues in the field. But nobody is perfect.

And yes I know that all newsrooms aren’t created equal and there are more that are more trustworthy than others. There are even those that are about as trustworthy as an untrustworthy rat wearing a hat with a badge that says ‘I’m not trustworthy’. But that’s where your own judgement comes into play. After all, there is no shortage of outlets from which you can choose.

So the next time you see a story break on social and go to verify it by looking at the TV or turning on the radio or look a site that runs a newsroom and it’s not been reported yet, don’t deride the newsrooms. Trust they’re doing their job so that when you get the facts. They’re just that. The facts.