Be­ware the fog of break­ing news


CHAN­NEL 4 News has learnt a hard les­son in the wake of the Westminster ter­ror at­tack. It had to apol­o­gise – and pull a re­peat of its news pro­gramme – af­ter wrongly nam­ing a man in prison as the ter­ror­ist. It wasn’t alone – a hand­ful of other in­ter­na­tional news or­gan­i­sa­tions jumped to the wrong con­clu­sion too.

Mis­takes hap­pen. But in the age of “fake news” and plum­met­ing trust in the me­dia, it’s a se­ri­ous er­ror.

How does this hap­pen? It’s not a new prob­lem. Dur­ing the man­hunt fol­low­ing the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing in 2013, CNN, The New York Post and a group of so­cial me­dia vig­i­lantes on Red­dit also made mis-iden­ti­fi­ca­tions. It re­mains a clear case study of how the rush to pub­lish or broad­cast can lead even the best astray.

In the adrenalin-charged chase for in­for­ma­tion dur­ing a ma­jor break­ing-news event, the temp­ta­tion for news or­gan­i­sa­tions to over­reach in the hope of ex­clu­siv­ity and im­pact can be too great. But as I tell gen­er­a­tions of stu­dent jour­nal­ists at Cardiff Univer­sity each year: “If you’re first and wrong, you’re not first.”

Chan­nel 4 News’s apol­ogy said its correspondent quoted a source he trusted nam­ing the attacker. No fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on who the source was or where the in­for­ma­tion came from was pro­vided.

Like many news ad­dicts, I was watch­ing Twit­ter as the at­tack and af­ter­math un­folded. Shortly af­ter 6pm, be­fore Chan­nel 4 News was on the air, I saw two Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists of­fer the name along with an archive pic­ture of him com­pared to pictures of Wed­nes­day’s attacker say­ing: “Looks like the same guy.”

Other in­ter­na­tional news ser­vices fol­lowed suit – those tweets have now been deleted.

The point about so­cial me­dia is, even when it ap­pears to come from es­tab­lished jour nal­ists, it of­ten amounts to lit­tle more than bar talk. It’s raw gos­sip or in­for­ma­tion which re­quires the ed­i­to­rial dis­ci­plines of ver­i­fi­ca­tion.

It is the noise of un­sourced chat­ter, drown­ing out the sig­nal of fully sourced news-gath­er­ing.

Mis­takes such as Chan­nel 4’s (and I sin­gle it out only as the most re­cent trans­gres­sor – any news or­gan­i­sa­tion is vul­ner­a­ble) oc­cur for a mix of rea­sons. In to­day’s hy­per-com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, there is a pre­mium – mis­placed in my view – on be­ing first.

Ac­tu­ally, most con­sumers are not mon­i­tor­ing par­al­lel feeds and have lit­tle idea of who is first – and care less. Ex­clu­siv­ity in to­day’s sec­ond-by-sec­ond news cy­cle lasts mo­ments at best.

Added to this is the need to have im­pact – to demon­strate the value of your pro­gramme or news feed above all oth­ers. This is com­pounded by shrink­ing bud­gets and re­sources as ad­ver­tis­ing de­clines and the need to in­vest in more and more dig­i­tal plat­forms erodes the core mis­sion. In this cli­mate, short cuts can seem at­trac­tive.

We live in a highly com­plex me­dia en­vi­ron­ment – fed by al­go­rithms, gamed by po­lit­i­cal or commercial in­ter­ests, favour­ing sen­sa­tion over author­ity, show­cas­ing opin­ion over fact. Few con­sumers or jour nal­ists fully un­der­stand how in­for ma­tion works in this en­vi­ron­ment.

News or­gan­i­sa­tions need some new skills to cope – but they also need to cling to some old prin­ci­ples that have guided news gath­er­ing over many years:

1) In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of a break­ing news event, much in­for­ma­tion will be wrong.

2) Don’t trust sec­ondary or sin­gle sources.

3) As­sume noth­ing, trust no­body, check ev­ery­thing twice.

Twenty-six years ago, I was in the BBC’s live TV con­trol room as the first bombs fell on Bagh­dad in the Gulf War. There was a news agency re­port that Iraq had at­tacked Is­rael with chem­i­cal weapons. One news net­work ran it and oth­ers then picked it up quot­ing two sources. I had to re­strain an adrenalin-fu­elled pre­sen­ter from an­nounc­ing it. It was just a ru­mour, fed into the feed­back loop of live news, that proved to be wrong.

Now the ru­mours and feed­back are ex­po­nen­tially greater.

We should all be­ware the fog of break­ing news. Pro­fes­sional news or­gan­i­sa­tions, even in to­day’s hy­per-com­pet­i­tive arena, need to re­mem­ber the lessons of the past. Sambrook is a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Cardiff Univer­sity.

A pho­to­graph of po­lice­man Keith Palmer, who was killed in the Westminster ter­ror at­tack, is placed in cen­tral Lon­don on Thurs­day. Chan­nel 4 News had to apol­o­gise for wrongly nam­ing a sus­pect.

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