Reporting Truth is More Important Than Speed

When you work as a reporter at a small community newspaper, you learn early on that making a mistake – grammatical, factual or otherwise – will typically earn you a public flogging by way of scathing letter to the editor. So, you double- and triple-check your facts before printing.

But, something has happened in this 24/7 news cycle and Twitter-as-news cycle. Accuracy and truth in reporting has become less important than being the first to break a story.

I was shocked to observe it happening during the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. For example: The name of the shooter most news outlets had been using all day was the wrong name (it was the shooter’s brother). The first victim – the shooter’s mother – wasn’t, in fact, a teacher at that school. At one point there was a second shooter, and then there wasn’t.

Bad information. Just plain wrong. But it was out there and people were repeating it. Re-tweeting it.

It seems history is repeating itself with the Boston Marathon attack.

Shortly after the blasts, one news outlet said 17 people were killed. We all know that the actual number is three. Another outlet reported that a Saudi national was in custody and being guarded at a local hospital as a suspect. It turns out the innocent man was held down by frantic people in the crowd who thought he’d had something to do with it. He was never in police custody as a suspect; just recovering at a local hospital, like so many others.

Then, two days after the bombings, news outlets and social media erupted that a suspect had been arrested. An hour later: No arrests. It wasn’t until the Boston Police Department and FBI confirmed there had been no arrest made in the attack that the claims died down.

It dawned on me during the early moments of the Boston Marathon attack that as news consumers, we’re all part of the problem. We all want the information as quickly as possible. We re-tweet and share on Facebook the moment things are announced, whether or not stories contain a credible source. An “unnamed” or “unofficial” source does not count as credible, people.

Like so many Americans, Sandy Hook will always be on my heart. As a journalist, my mind will also linger on the shooter’s brother, who not only lost his family and has to live with the pain his brother caused, but whose name was vilified for the better part of a day, despite his innocence.

In the future, do your own fact-checking and wait for a named source. Contact the news outlet to let them know you value accuracy over rapidity.

It’s time to demand better.

This is Off the Record, Right?

If you’re a character in the “Harry Potter” series, one of the most dreaded phrases spoken is “Voldemort.” If you’re the parent of a teen, you may be tempted to give a kidney if it would mean your child never uttered, “Whatever” again.

I can tell you as a journalist, one of the phrases that strikes frustration into the hearts of reporters everywhere is “off the record.” It makes our jobs more difficult and brings up ethical dilemmas, including deciphering what we can and cannot use for our stories.

Most of us were taught in journalism school that “off the record” is a term that means none of the material can be published (with attribution or anonymously) or shared with another source.

Be warned, however, that as a PR professional or business source speaking to reporters – depending on the circumstances and the particular reporter you’re working with – simply saying “this is off the record” doesn’t necessarily mean that your words will be saved from print or broadcast. A recent article quotes Johna Burke, senior vice president at BurellesLuce, on the “mythical creature” that is “off the record.”

The very idea of confidentiality has changed over the past few years, Burke said. Things employees used to talk to their friends and families about now gets shared on social media sites. Voicemails and emails make their way to the press.

“Everything is public record,” she said.

Christine Perkett of Perkett PR agrees, “From executive internal memos to ‘private’ DMs on Twitter, to emails, anything that can be shared – and if it benefits someone – probably will be,” she says. …

Be transparent with your message and communicate it well, Burke advised. She said, “I’d hate to think we need to be guarded” with information, though she did say it’s a good policy to keep a tight circle around communications you don’t want going out into the public sphere.

Perkett puts it this way: “A good mind frame is simply, zip the lip.”

(Gil) Rudawsky (senior director of communications at Ground Floor Media) doesn’t expressly prohibit going off the record, but he says to be very careful about it.

“The only way I’d recommend sharing off-the-record information is with reporters who you have a good preexisting relationship with, but even then it is with reservations,” he says. “Otherwise, assume that everything you say will show up in their stories.”

However, as I said earlier, depending on the circumstances and the reporter involved, the phrase still holds water. When I was a beat reporter at a small newspaper, my concern was developing trust with – not burning – my very valuable sources. So, even though hearing the phrase pained me, I would respect the source’s wishes and seek out someone else who could give me the information I needed for the story. Many reporters – but not all – follow a similar code. 

When you know you’re going to be interviewed, at least have a conversation with the reporter prior to the interview regarding information that should stay off the record. And, if there’s something you really don’t want to have published, you’re probably better off just keeping it to yourself.

Of course, as a journalist at heart, that last sentence cuts me pretty deep.

Township Budgets and Expenditures Receive Local Scrutiny

When things get lean, it is even more important to use limited resources as wisely as possible. And so it goes with local government.

This is the first year that each of the 92 county councils in Indiana are doing a non-binding review of the 2010 budgets of all civil units of government (including townships) within that county. The goal is to get a better handle on other budgets within the county by a single fiscal body and how the tax caps will affect these budgets. This kind of review is important, especially with the impact of property tax caps on local budgets. However, with the review being non-binding, the county councils can only make recommendations, not decisions. 

To add context about township government expenditures and activities to those budget discussions, analysis was done from the 2008 financial reports that township trustees are legally required to file with the Indiana State Board of Accounts. That analysis was done for townships in 29 Indiana counties and summarized for each county.

The information from these reports shows incredible variances in standards and expenditures. For example, average poor relief per person ranges from $56 to $826 from one township to another in the same county. In another county, administrative costs to deliver $1 in direct services (both poor relief and public safety) ranged from 30 cents in one township to $12.20 in another.

It was hoped that as the county councils and the public saw the great differentials among expenditures, taxes and services by township, there will be a realization that more consistency is needed. We need discussions about how to provide more consistent services to the poor – not just among townships, though that is very important, but also in cooperation with all other human services agencies in the county.  We need like discussions in regard to fire and emergency services. 

Many county councils expressed frustration that the only power they had was to make a non-binding recommendation and thought it was a waste of time. Other county councils didn’t spend much time on it and simply rubber-stamped the township budgets. Because of property tax caps, local governments will have more than $400 million less to spend this year.  While the county budget officials do not have the authority to prioritize among taxing units, we hope their recent deliberations will inform the public and legislators of the need to simplify local government.