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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics: Fundamentals should still apply, even in digital age


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Friday, August 1, 2008
Ethics: Fundamentals should still apply, even in digital age

By Andy Schotz

These days I’m several ounces heavier as I travel to my reporting assignments.

That’s because of the Flip video camera in my breast pocket. It’s a little bigger than a credit card.

Its stature in my newsroom, though, is large. After a gradual start about a year ago, video has become part of our daily routine.

The Flip is close to foolproof, which is ideal for those stepping into this medium for the first time.

The reporting staff received elementary lessons in lighting, sound and editing.

But there’s more to the story than figuring out how to operate a camera.

As this and other digital initiatives grow at newspapers across the country, it’s easy — but unwise — to let technology propel the operation faster than you’re ready to go.

What’s more important for a reporter covering a story — the written word or the moving image? If a big moment is about to happen, do you grab your notebook or your camera?

It’s trickier when you’re asked to shoot your own still pictures at the same time. When Sen. John McCain made a presidential campaign stop in Annapolis, Md., this year, I simultaneously took pictures with one hand and shot video with the other.

That’s not the norm, but there’s certainly a danger for journalists to be given too many extra duties and to be spread too thin. As a manager, do you want one thing done well or many things just done?

My newsroom, like many others, has been conditioned to post breaking news right away on our Web site instead of waiting for the next day’s paper. But the mushrooming hyper-competitiveness in which being first is measured in minutes can erode standards.

As my paper was moving to a Web-first mentality, I attended a press association “webinar” led by an editor from a paper seen as an online pioneer.

This editor told us about someone getting shot in his community. One of his reporters quickly gathered some details, showed the story to another reporter for a quick read and up it went on the Web site. The editing crew was too busy laying out pages on deadline to get involved.

The editors, the final overseers of news coverage before it’s presented to the public, didn’t touch the story.

That would not happen in our newsroom, my editor promised. So far, it hasn’t.

What happens in your newsroom? Do fewer editors read copy, including blurbs with breaking news, before it’s posted on your Web site than if it were appearing in print? Are headlines and cutlines checked by more than one person before they’re posted?

Last year, a consultant came to my newspaper to talk about running an active, popular news site.

I wasn’t there, but several colleagues told me about a peculiar tip from the consultant. He said it’s not as serious when you make mistakes on the Web. You fix them, you move on.

Really?

Never mind the terrible hypothesis that it’s OK to present news when you’re not sure it’s completely correct, which includes the spelling and grammar. Mistakes happen, but haste and uncertainty shouldn’t be built into the routine.

If accuracy is paramount, then acknowledging our mistakes, as we do in print, should be a given.

We should take care to get it right the first time, whether it be on the Web, in print or anywhere else where we pledge to deliver the truth as best as we can.

In a New York Times piece, Lawrence Downes wrote that copy editors are becoming relics.

“Webby doesn’t necessarily mean sloppy, of course, and online news operations will shine with all the brilliance that the journalists who create them can bring,” he wrote. “But in that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly — old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.”

As we focus more on this new age of interactivity and turning news operations into carnival rides, we sometimes forsake fundamentals we used to swear by.

Take your time. Get it right. Admit when you’re wrong.

Encourage meaningful discourse. Eschew the silliness and irresponsibility of anonymous sniping, which so many news organizations have welcomed and even encouraged. Readers’ comments should be on the record.

Give reporters time and space to fully explore and explain the truth, which, after all, is our mission.

Edgy new features that jazz up plain old journalism can carry extra burdens. Make sure your newsroom acknowledges the weight.

Andy Schotz, SPJ’s Ethics Committee chairman, is a reporter for The Herald-Mail, a daily newspaper in Hagerstown, Md. He has covered a variety of beats, including city hall and police and courts. Schotz is on the board of SPJ’s Washington, D.C., Pro chapter. A Long Island native, he has a bachelor’s degree from the University at Albany in upstate New York. He previously worked for eight years at The Altamont Enterprise, a weekly paper outside Albany, as a reporter and, for part of that time, an editor.

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