An editor asks by email a question I hear often as journalists address the challenges of digital journalism: “Is it better to be first, or be right?”
Three times recently, the editor said, his staff was beaten (not on breaking news), but the competition had major errors in its reports. “When we published, we got the stories right, though, again, not first,” the editor said.
I regard this as a false choice, but if you must present it that way, my answer is that you always want to be right. Accuracy is one of our highest values as journalists, and you don’t sacrifice accuracy for the sake of competition.
The reason I don’t like the choice, though, is that I think it is used too often as an excuse or as cover by journalists who have been beaten. Being first with the news is also high on the scale of journalistic values. You want to be first and right, and if the competition is beating you, you need to step up your game, rather than seeking cover.
I believe accuracy and verification become more important in digital journalism than in print journalism. The daily deadlines of print usually give you hours to nail down the facts before you have to publish. The constant deadlines of digital publishing mean that you publish when you have the facts verified.
Reporters and editors in the print-only days frequently had stories where we thought we had the facts nailed down and a source turned out to be wrong, taking the story in a different direction before we reached the deadline. We got the story right, but if the deadline had come earlier, we would have been wrong.
When you can publish as soon as you get facts verified, you cannot relax your standards of verification. In fact, you should strengthen them (my accuracy and verification tips and accuracy checklist and Craig Silverman’s accuracy checklist will help).
What does change in digital journalism is the standard of completeness. If you have nailed down the central fact of a story (doesn’t have to be a breaking story; could be a routine daily story on the beat), you can publish the basic fact (and be first), noting that you are still developing the story. Then you keep working on the details (and your initial bulletin allows you to crowdsource some of the details) and report them as you nail them down.
This applies in liveblogging, which I strongly advocate as a new form of telling stories as they unfold. You will hear things at an event that you don’t know to be true. You certainly can report that someone said something, particularly if the setting is a public meeting or if the source is in a position to know. But you still are responsible for the accuracy of the information you publish. Report what the source said, if the fact that she said it is newsworthy, but note that you have not yet verified what the source said. And try to verify quickly, even if you have to take a pause from the liveblog.
With constant deadlines, you will make some mistakes (you made mistakes with daily deadlines, too). When you do, correct your errors quickly and candidly (don’t blame sources; you need to take responsibility for your accuracy and your errors) and examine your verification procedures and standards to see where you failed and whether you need to be more diligent.
Here’s my answer: You always want to be right. And you always want to be first. If you aren’t managing both, you need to work harder.