Who cares about veracity?

SocialmediaThumbnailWhile journalists are still struggling to combine accuracy with immediacy, consumers are constantly exposed to mistakes and misunderstandings. In the rush to be the first to inform, our job has, unfortunately, gotten many of us into some ambiguous situations where some facts have been confused.

Immediacy should never be mixed up with being in a clumsy hurry to inform – but this is all the more important when it comes to public safety and emergency situations that play with others' fears and panic.

News outlets covering tragic events seem engaged in a nonsensical struggle to remain "objective" as a guiding journalistic principle, even as honesty and social responsibility often end up being brutally left out.

After months of uncertainty, the lack of news about the missing Malaysia plane is still confusing the world, since investigations seem to go three steps forward and two steps back, especially when there are more than 200 families still desperate to know updates about the case. But trying to find answers to what has not yet been solved could be as dangerous as making news up.

The insatiability of the digital era brings new interactivity and, since "speed" is its identity sign, new technology is closely linked to an uncontrolled news production issue.

A recent example of this was a Spanish plane crash that at one point was reported as instead being merely a tugboat instead of spotted wreckage

TweetScreenshotTranslation: As regards the assumed plane crash, SAR, Air Traffic Control and helicopter #GES confirm that it was a tug pulling a vessel.

Screenshot by Quinton Amundson
In late March, the Canary Islands emergency services (112) posted a tweet informing that a plane crashed into the sea two miles off the Jinámar coast of Spain. The second filter where the information got through was the control tower. Employees claimed they were informed of this; the information they got was, "wrecked aircraft displayed on the water." A few minutes later, the third and last filter showed up: Control Canarias 112 posted an updated version of what had happened (image), stating that what had been thought to be wreckage, was instead merely a tugboat..

In this event, accuracy was clearly eclipsed by the rush of having newsworthy material.

Michael Karlsson, a professor from Sweden's Karlstad University and author of The Immediacy of Online News, The visibility of Journalistic Processes and a Restructuring of Journalistic Authority, said via email: "Publishing inaccurate information in the first place is contradictory to the function of journalism. Retracting this information without notifying the audience creates problems in accountability. In the long run it might foster a culture of sloppiness since "it can always be corrected afterwards."

Another recent slip-up, this one from the BBC, has led to the company's reputation being placed in doubt.

SyriaMarco Di Lauro a photographer who had been working for an international picture agency called Getty Images, went public with the charge that the BBC published in 2012 a photo he took in Iraq in 2003 accompanied by the following caption: "Syria massacre in Houla condemned as outrage grows."

On his website www.marcodilauro.com, Di Lauro called the use of the out-dated image a case of his image being used as "propaganda against the Syrian government to prove the massacre."

Two days after this incident, BBC editors acknowledged, "It was a mistake - rectified by the removal of the image as soon as it was spotted - and we apologise for it." The apology continued: "Fortunately, such mistakes are very rare. BBC News has a strong track record of using content from non-traditional sources, and of stopping numerous examples of incorrect material making it to air or online - but it does underline the need to handle such material with great care."

These incidents give us a sense that the most important and influential media in the world are always in the spotlight, and sooner or later, we catch their mistakes.

But when does a trusted news organization's credibility run out? The BBC news editors know how much power they have; why would they let their reputation go to ruin just to publish a fake piece of news?

Immediacy, rush, manipulation or just a simple mistake are likely the most common answers to situations like these. But it begs the question: Are journalists producing news according to the public interest, or they are just producing customized information?

What sometimes happens – especially through social media – is a spreading unconfirmed reports – and sometimes lies – in the name of urgency, as happened in the case of the Spanish plane crash noted above.

Clearly, some journalistic functions have become a double-edged sword when it comes to the truth, as they are not only useful for high-speed information, but also dangerous when it comes to being accurate.

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Calgary Journal reporter Ingrid Mir is a Spanish-exchange student who spent the year in Calgary studying journalism at Mount Royal University.


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