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A World of Publishers, but Too Few Editors: Why the Choice Between Speed and Accuracy Isn’t a Contest


July 17, 2013

Dewey defeated Truman nearly 65 years before several top U.S. media outlets (including CNN) wrongly reported the arrest of a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing case. 

Janet Cooke fabricated and published Pulitzer Prizewinning stories in The Washington Post 33 years before the Associated Press’s Twitter account was hacked and hijacked, triggering a temporary stock market tumble this past April.

U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy used the media to exploit fears of Communism 63 years before Reddit and the New York Post fueled suspicions about bag-carrying, brown-skinned men as potential marathon bombers.

Mistakes in journalism aren’t anything new. The lust for the exclusive, the desire to be first or to be famous, poor reporting, poor editing, subterfuge, propaganda, cronyism, good old-fashioned lies — all of these failings and others have tripped up the media on a regular basis for hundreds of years.

It’s now easier for people to make mistakes because millions of people are now able to make them, acting as untrained, unfiltered, unedited sources, reporters, commentators and publishers with direct access to tools and channels that transmit their mistakes faster and farther than ever before.

“Never before in history has more information been available to more people, but at the same time, never before has more bad information been available to more people,” CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley said at a Quinnipiac University School of Communication luncheon this past spring.

Pelley, who is also the show’s managing editor, made it clear that he was not being holier than thou in airing his concerns. “I’ll take the first arrow,” he said, noting that he was among those who led the way in broadcasting wildly incorrect information in the hours following the Sandy Hook shooting rampage.

Inspiring credibility

The speed-versus-accuracy debate brings up issues for both media and PR professionals because our success hinges on the need to create, maintain and inspire credibility and confidence.

Our professions rely on people believing in our content. Whether we are launching a new product, promoting a cause marketing partnership or publishing a byline on a public policy issue, our audiences must believe in the sincerity and truthfulness of our work.

Both media and PR professionals share a common need to master and marshal the social and digital tools, channels and platforms of the day. They are indispensible for content management and marketing, creating community and cultivating connections. Storytelling is, by and large, what we are in the business of doing, whether it’s through long-form reports, news releases, Facebook pages, blog posts or Twitter feeds.

The pitfalls of the content business have not changed, nor have the methods to overcome them. Here’s how you can mitigate errors:

  • The choice between speed and accuracy isn’t a contest. Being first doesn’t mean anything if you are wrong. In fact, the stain of being wrong will linger much longer on a reputation than not being first.

    There is considerable evidence to indicate that some sources of information are more influential and trusted than others; there is little to demonstrate that “firsts” or “exclusives” matter much to external audiences, except, perhaps, in the case of celebrity gossip. Since “firsts” last between 15 seconds and 15 minutes these days, there’s not much upside, especially if you’re compromising accuracy.
     
  • The tools are not the enemy. Whenever social media lands in the middle of a “media mistake,” fresh hand-wringing ensues about the role of modern technology. Twitter is neither a reporter nor a PR professional. If the human beings behind the channels get the content right, then the questions about the distribution technology are moot. Ignorant or unethical people will produce ignorant or unethical content just as educated and informed people will produce educated and informed content.
     
  • Understand your audience’s habits as content consumers. At key moments in the marathon bombing saga, significant numbers of Boston-area residents ages 18 to 34 had their TVs on and their Twitter feeds open simultaneously — not because the two platforms are equally credible, but to fulfill their desire for instant gratification. They wanted all of the news, rumors, gossip, analysis and commentary they could get as fast as they could get it. If you don’t read the annual “State of the News Media” report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, then you should — thoroughly.
     
  • The channels giveth; the channels taketh away. The social media tools and digital platforms that strike fear in the hearts of your clients for their potential negative consequences can also be used for positive outcomes.

    The Boston Police Department, for example, used Twitter as a kind of emergency broadcasting system and as a way to spread accurate information during the bombing investigation. You are the media. If your story is not being told, or if it is being told inaccurately, or if your audiences are being misled or confused, then you have the power to change it.

Getting it right

In the pre-Internet, pre-broadband era, the correction of journalistic errors was confined to the small print on Page 2, if it was acknowledged at all. Today, content mistakes — from tone-deaf, cookie-cutter PR pitches to the series of media whoppers we’ve seen this year — are chunks in the daily chum of our digital life.

In accepting the 20th annual Fred Friendly First Amendment Award, Pelley summed it up well when he said: “In a world where everyone is a publisher, no one is an editor. And that is the danger that we face today.”

Stupidity, hubris and arrogance have great currency at a time when the “send” key allows every stumble to be known, broadcast, shared and discussed. No one has proposed any breathtaking new rules or silver-bullet mechanisms to ensure that those of us in the content business are balancing speed and accuracy. It’s likely that the old rules are just fine.

We live, work and play in a time of historic transparency. The embarrassment that comes from making a mistake should be incentive enough for the media and PR professionals to get it right.

Ed Cafasso Ed Cafasso is a managing director in the Corporate & Financial Practice for Burson-Marsteller and the agency’s Market Leader in Boston. He is a member of PRSA’s Corporate Communications section.



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