The catch-22 of rapid reporting

The choice between being right and being fast: a newspaper’s greatest challenge

Informed retraction. Wait, I’m not talking about the honor system. Surprised? I know; it’s a phrase you’re tired of hearing. So, let’s turn the tables.

What happens when the newspaper digging up the dirt on an important case must make its own informed retraction?

The Cavalier Daily got a taste of that bitter medicine recently.
But first, let’s do an experiment. Imagine you’re a reporter. You answer a phone call at 2 a.m. and rush to cover a nascent story, a scandal happening to a well-known public figure. Arriving Batman-like at the scene, you importune anyone involved for quotes, facts, juicy details that might slip through the cracks and into the soil of our newly turfed Lawn. But then — danger! You see the Joker encroach upon your territory. The Joker is a top reporter at a competing newspaper and you have lost stories to him before. However, you aren’t yet positive all your details are bulletproof.
What do you do?

Quick — you don’t have long to decide.

Publish too fast, and suddenly it looks like your story was the child of Rita Skeeter’s Quick-Quotes Quill from Harry Potter. Wait too long and well…too late; story’s gone and your boss isn’t happy.
Herein lies a newspaper’s greatest challenge: the choice between being right and being fast. Unfortunately, the balance often devolves into a catch-22: readers expect stories to cover important events both quickly and accurately, but whether reporters sacrifice accuracy for the sake of speed or vice versa, the newspaper is probably going to hear about it either way.

The Cavalier Daily is no exception. A March 3 article, “Students approve informed retraction,” garnered over the next week a slew of comments expressing confusion. Discussing a statement purportedly made by Honor Committee Chair Stephen Nash regarding amendments to honor’s by-laws, one commenter types, “Anyone else notice that article was edited? He in fact did suggest that in the original version.” “The CD must have edited the story as more details became available,” agrees another reader soon after.

The downfall quickly becomes clear: what initially bespoke productive discussion among readers about the article’s content rapidly derailed into a distracting critique of the article’s accuracy. Notably, readers found need to consult other sources to confirm or disprove the status of The Cavalier Daily article.
I’m going to state the obvious: as a newspaper, you don’t want your readers fleeing to other sources to ascertain if yours is credible.

Senior news associate Joseph Liss, reporter on the story above, acknowledged the oversight and addressed this issue in an email. Liss explained the original quote in question came “from an interview I did with him [Nash] Saturday, and I first posted the story at around 12 am Sunday morning.”

According to Liss, the events of the succeeding Sunday evening invalidated Nash’s statement. In accordance, he “quickly made changes online to reflect the new details.” Speaking of his team, he continued, “We went back throughout the night, making changes to assure we had a well-written and technically correct story by the time it went out in the paper.”

Liss’s actions here are desirable: the moment details in a story change, readers deserve to receive an updated version of events. Furthermore, readers do not demand perfection from a newspaper. Accuracy to the best of one’s knowledge is the only unspoken contract between reporter and reader.

The issue — something all too close to the University’s heart as of late — is one of transparency. Readers expect to be told outright what happened. It is the lack of transparency, the reader’s feeling of floundering in uncertainty — even second-guessing his original read-through of the story — that motivates the types of comments on this honor article. With time, it risks general dissatisfaction with the paper and a dangerous loss of readership.

Fortunately, readers did more than simply criticize: they pointed out the obvious solution. One commenter, Ader1966, offered a balanced commendation: “Kudos to the CD for covering the impact of IR’s approval and publishing content throughout the weekend. But it would have been nice if they included a note detailing the revisions made to the article.”

To The Cavalier Daily, heads up: enact this solution now, or risk encountering readers much more disgruntled than the poster of the gracious comment above. It is common practice among newspapers for journalists to publish highly visible corrections at the top or bottom of articles. Bold it, underline it, animate it — just make it obvious. At the very least, reply to those commenting and resolve the issue.

As a reporter, signaling that correction actually comes off positively: it means you’re paying attention and doing your best to inform accurately. And, in the end, that is all the reader really wants to know.

Ashley Stevenson is The Cavalier Daily’s public editor. Contact her at publiceditor@cavalierdaily.com.


Published March 18, 2013 in Opinion

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