Star public editor: Reporting responsibly in real time during the Ottawa attack

Kathy EnglishBy Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

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.

To continue reading this column, please go thestar.com where this was originally published.

You may also like...