Scott Libin on digital ethics: In absence of other guidelines accuracy remains paramount

MINNEAPOLIS – “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy” is a mantra we all have heard, whether we’re journalists or not. And whether we’re journalists or not is a focus of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).

“In our new ethics code draft, we chose not to dwell on whether or not you are a journalist . . . but do you practice journalism. A journalist’s obligation is to be accurate. Journalism requires verification, context and an indication of what your coverage omitted.”

That’s how Scott Libin chose to launch his interview with Ethics News Updates. The subject was fact-checking and insights B2B editors might gain via views expressed by the executive overseeing the RTDNA ethics code revision.

During a previous ENU interview, Libin outlined the creative approach the project would take. A draft of the code released for comment was posted in November. As of ENU press time last month, here is how the section read devoted to truth and accuracy:

  • The facts should get in the way of a good story. Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information. Many things that are technically “true” are incomplete, out of context or otherwise misleading. Journalism’s standard of accuracy is higher than that.
  • There are not two sides to every story; for every story of significance there are more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.
  • Scarce resources, deadline pressure and cutthroat competition do not excuse cutting corners factually or oversimplifying complex issues. “Trending,” “going viral” or “exploding on social media” may increase urgency, but these phenomena only heighten the need for strict standards of accuracy.
  • Facts change over time. Responsible reporting includes updating stories and amending archival versions to make them more accurate and to avoid misinforming those who, through search, stumble upon outdated material.
  • Deception in newsgathering, including surreptitious recording, conflicts with journalism’s commitment to truth. Similarly, anonymity of sources deprives the audience of important, relevant information. Staging, dramatization and other alterations – even when labeled as such – can confuse or fool viewers, listeners and readers.  These tactics are justified only when stories of great significance cannot be adequately told without distortion, and when any creative liberties taken are clearly explained.
  • Journalism challenges assumptions, rejects stereotypes and illuminates –even where it cannot eliminate – ignorance.

Getting real about fact-checking

In an online era that finds more B2B editors dealing with daily frequency, how does one set fact-checking goals?

“You may not be able to fact-check every single thing,” responds Libin, “but this doesn’t mean no fact-checking should be done.” He likens the situation to being an observant safe driver. “You take every measure possible. Even then, you may crash occasionally.”

Is it valuable to establish a list of “red flag” digital content that requires an accuracy check? Red flags of the past have not changed much from the print-only era, says Libin. “What is really new for online is digital manipulation – we must be able to tell whether or not images have been doctored.”

Verfication should be pursued within reason, he adds. “We allow some quotes to stand because they are clearly a person’s opinion. But you should be even-handed in reporting other viewpoints when necessary.”

Another hurdle is fact-checking of articles written from “outsourced” information that B2B editors rely on to fill daily e-news posting quotas. “Outsourced” includes PR releases, newspaper articles or curated material.

It depends upon source credibility, says Libin.  For example, AP-sourced wire service information clearly has credibility. On the other hand, an equal vote of confidence cannot be accorded to those sites that run unedited press releases. “Submitted press releases should not be reported outright,” he says. “You must do some reporting on your own; not just play back the information.”

(Editor’s note: Libin is now Hubbard Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism. Previously he had been vice president of news and content for Internet Broadcasting, Inc. in St. Paul, Minn.)

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