Journalism under pressure

Pam
Pam Frampton
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“It’s not a 24-hour news cycle, it’s a 60-second news cycle now, it’s instantaneous. It has never been easier to get away with telling lies. It has never been easier to get away with the glib one-liner.”

— Malcolm Turnbull, Australian MP

I’ve got one eye on the computer screen and the national news story I’m reading — Senator Pamela Wallin’s tab for ineligible travel expenses is now at $138,970 — and the other eye on my iPhone, where I’m logged in to online banking. Ramped up to a state of impatience by the sluggishness of the transaction, I keep stabbing the “submit” button as I try to transfer money from one account to another.

My father still gets his bank passbook updated after waiting in line to speak to a teller, and I’m frustrated if my bill payment takes more than a second or so. And if I get interrupted in my online banking and don’t punch a button for a minute or two, I’m logged out due to my “inactivity.”

It’s the curse of technology — we want what we want and we want it now. Or yesterday.

Phone conversations with the kids have morphed into text fragments: “Are you free for dinner on Wednesday?” (At least I haven’t lapsed into text abbreviations yet — “R u free 4 dinner? Gr8.”)

Emails from friends sometimes come in the form of group messages with attached photos, but no greetings. Just look at the photo, for God’s sake. Enough said — there’s no time to talk.

Tweets are sent with embedded links and isolated snippets of conversation that even some of your followers can’t follow.

Communication is so rapid and clipped these days, the notion of making a cup of instant coffee seems like an artisanal experience, something from the slow beverage movement.

So, how does all of this rapid-fire exchange affect what we expect from the news? Well, it has put media coverage on a slippery slope.

If a local YouTube video goes viral, for example, news organizations jump at it like trout to a worm, wanting to be the first to link it to their websites so they can draw as many eyeballs as possible.

“Hey! Did you see that cute video of the cat in Little Catalina that knows how to play ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ on the piano? I saw it on such-and-such’s news website.”

Yes, indeed you did. But did anyone at the news website verify that the talented cat was, in fact, in Little Catalina? Or are we all in such a frenzy to be first with the news or, in this case, the novelty, that we post links first and ask questions later?

If an online video shows garbage dumped in the woods, how do you know the person videotaping the scene didn’t put it there themselves?

I’m not suggesting anyone’s done this, of course, I’m just saying perhaps we’re all too accepting; we’re forgetting critical thinking — seeing is believing.

Of course, there’s still good, solid investigative journalism being done in this province, and there’s fine work being done every single day by our media outlets.

It’s just that this is a competitive business, and it can be tempting in the race to be first to get that initial story out there and worry about the followup and the fine print later. That’s a reality of news gathering these days.

And it’s not just journalists putting pressure on themselves; we often get complaints from readers and viewers if we don’t report something soon enough, regardless of whether or not we have all the facts.

Case in point: on Aug. 6, VOCM reported that three people — all of whom knew each other — had been shot dead somewhere in the Corner Book area.

That’s pretty big news in a province like ours, where the murder rate is mercifully low.

VOCM’s report put pressure on other media outlets to get the story, but the police said they were not investigating such an incident.

VOCM removed the story from their website shortly after.

The thing is, police were investigating what happened to three people whose remains were found in a burnt-out cabin on the west coast.

Was it a murder-suicide? Had they been shot?

We still don’t know. VOCM might well have been right — the thing is, they ran with the story without official confirmation in their desire to get it out there first.

We may well learn in the days to come that they had the story nailed right from the start.

The trouble comes if media outlets become so quick to publish unconfirmed reports that we become like the boy who cried wolf and no one trusts what we have to say anymore.

I think we all — journalists, viewers, readers — need to take a deep breath and accept the fact that some stories require digging and multiple-source verification, and that news should never be reported to satisfy the desire for instant gratification.

If we post a YouTube video to our website that shows a rare albino crab caught in the North Atlantic that is eventually revealed to be a dead crab found on the beach and given a coat of white paint, we’ll all have been hoaxed, but it’s the news organizations whose reputations will be tarnished and we’ll have done our readers and viewers a disservice.

What’s that old saying? Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

Despite the pressures to provide information at a frantic pace, for news organizations, it should always be better to be first with the facts than simply first.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton

Geographic location: North Atlantic

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  • sean flynn
    August 24, 2013 - 09:39

    Yet VOCM and similar websites get a lot of hits, and therefore a lot of ad revenue. The loss of credibility by such mistakes doesn't retract from the increase in viewership and reputation of being "first with the news", at least not enough to make them more cautious, and that's the scary thing about the New Media. It's a race to the bottom.