Reporting responsibly in real time: Public Editor
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Oct 24, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Reporting responsibly in real time: Public Editor

When terror gripped Ottawa this week, Toronto Star journalists faced the challenge of reporting the news as it happened in an atmosphere of fear and chaos.

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When our nation's capital is under attack, and chaos and confusion rule, how do journalists separate rumour from reality in order to report responsibly in real time?

The simple answer: With great care and considerable challenge. When there is chaos in the streets, you can be certain there is chaos in the newsroom.

I wish every reader who has ever questioned the news and how it is gathered and presented to you could spend time in a newsroom — and in the field with reporters — when an important news story such as the tragedy that occurred in Ottawa Wednesday breaks. You would see for yourself the challenge of covering breaking news.

News does not break in neat, reader-ready statements of truth. It is more like a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of pieces scattered about to be carefully examined under pressing deadline and not all turning out to be actual facts that fit the big picture.

And of course, the challenge of determining the truth of what happens, as it happens, has never been more challenging for journalists given the demands of minute-to-minute digital deadlines.

The possibility of reporting as fact a piece of information that turns out to be false is considerable in any developing and “fluid” news situation. That's always been so, but the potential to amplify misinformation in the social media echo chamber has upped the stakes in deadline reporting.

So how did the Star do in bringing you the “first rough draft of history” as it unfolded in Ottawa Wednesday?

When this story broke that morning, I decided to monitor the Star's real-time coverage in real-time. I followed for many hours as the Star reported the developing story on its website, with stories, photos, videos and live blogs and through social media, both Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, I listened to radio, watched TV and periodically jumped to other news websites to compare coverage.

This was information overload writ large, but I am happy to tell you I found no serious missteps in the Star's real-time coverage. While some information reported by the Star (and other news organizations) turned out to be untrue — mainly that shootings had occurred at other locations, specifically the Rideau Centre, and more than one gunman was involved — that information came from police and other officials considered reliable sources in a developing news story. Given the dynamic situation, this is to be expected.

The Star was not always first in reporting some pieces of information. But, there is no shame in that. While all journalists want to be first, to my mind, it is still better to be right than first (yes, right and first is ideal!) and the newsroom well understands what is becoming a core principle of breaking digital news — when in doubt, don't report.

The challenge to report responsibly in real time played out both in the streets of Ottawa and in the newsroom. Our five Ottawa reporters did an excellent job of reporting even though the police lockdown of the Parliament Hill area prevented two journalists from taking to the street and three others from getting into the Star's bureau. With cellphone service sporadic, even communicating with one another and with the Star's newsroom was a challenge.

Still, all worked diligently to file what they knew as the story developed in an atmosphere of much chaos and confusion and fear of more gunfire.

“We were on the front lines in a dynamic situation that called for caution and we understood we should only report with authority what we saw with our own eyes,” Ottawa bureau chief Bruce Campion-Smith told me. “We are now in the live news business but on a day like that you still have to treat every piece of information with some suspicion.”

In Toronto, the newsroom exercised the same caution, taking great care as the story developed throughout the day and into the evening to publish the facts as verified by the Star. When verification was not possible, it made clear to readers what the Star had yet to confirm.

“Our job is to stick to the facts we do know, assess as we go what new pieces we need to chase down and confirm and be clear in reporting conflicting information,” said managing editor Jane Davenport. “It's also key to be completely transparent about how far we've been able to take confirmation of pieces of information that are highly relevant and come from credible sources but have not been completely verified.”

Indeed, in the aftermath of this tragedy, with so many pieces of the puzzle yet to be found, and the certainty of more chaos in sorting rumour from reality, these are strong working principles for all Star journalists.

Toronto Star

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