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The ethics of “instant” news reporting

In the wake of Major Nidal Hasan’s shooting spree at Fort Hood in early November of 2009, Salon.com posted a critique of the media coverage by Glenn Greenwald (the page seems no longer to be available) which, in turn, sparked an online debate about what is and is not the media’s responsibility in reporting such incidents and what the tradeoff is between timeliness and accuracy.  Greenwald was fairly critical of certain inaccuracies that he felt could inflame passions but, nonetheless, acknowledged a certain urgency in the reporting.  Others were far more tolerant of trading accuracy for speed.

I wrote this to interject a more fundamental question about what we even mean by “timeliness” in news reporting — and whether it ever should take precedence over accuracy.  I sent it directly to Greenwald, not as a comment at Salon.  I never saw the point mentioned, either at the time at Salon or in any later discussions anywhere else.

6 November 2009

I note that neither you nor anyone in the host of comments I managed to wade through before I started to tune out made any mention of the underlying issue here:

Why is it necessary to report any details of such an incident immediately?

The purpose of news is to inform, and there is a great deal of moral heft — and downright self-righteousness — attached to that. The American Constitution guarantees freedom of the press because it is important that the government not have authority to prevent us from learning what is going on. And government, itself, inasmuch as it is supposed to be accountable to its citizens, has an obligation to be as open as it can about what it is doing to us or in our name.

But, somehow, that negative constraint on government authority has been warped into the affirmative notion that journalism (and journalists) represent some enlightened and virtuous enterprise, separate from and superior to the more mundane acts of everyday citizenship. We hear often about “the public’s right to know”, which is certainly an authentic right of citizens when it comes to our public institutions but is a more dubious claim as we stray from those into the private sphere. Journalists like to talk of their duty to serve the public interest and of their moral obligations as if they were part of some priesthood; and political scientists (and our founding fathers), understanding that an ill-informed citizenry is detrimental to the proper functioning of a government “by the people”, have exalted the process by which citizens become informed as if it were a fundamental moral principle.

All well and good. But none of that says anything about time frames. Based on all the justifications cited above about citizenship and being informed, one might presume that the truly essential time-frame for news is “in time for it to be of use” — that is, to be of use in affecting future behavior or choices — which, in almost every case, does not mean “immediately”.

Let’s be honest about it, as citizens and as journalists: for people in the vicinity of Fort Hood, there was a pressing need to get a report out quickly, a report which contained merely the following information:

Something bad is happening — stay away!

For everyone else, there was no moral justification at all for rushing the news out; and there was, therefore, no moral justification at all for rushing it out in some distorted fashion. Instant reporting serves the business needs of news outlets — it attracts viewers — and the entertainment needs of the general public — it is titillating.

But instant reporting serves no journalistic purpose. And, therefore, journalistic purpose cannot be used as an excuse for getting the news wrong in the interest of getting it quickly.

© Copyright 2009, Augustus P. Lowell

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