This blog post first appeared on Ragan’s PR Daily.
There is an old saying in journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Journalists are taught to be skeptical and to back their work up with multiple sources and research. It is the cornerstone of the Fourth Estate and the basis for news media credibility. Unfortunately, that high standard is not always met during the rush to get a story first. The old journalism credo of checking it out sometimes is modified, at least unofficially, to: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
Two high-profile, head-scratching examples of the failures of journalism have occurred in recent weeks: New York magazine’s reporting that a teenage stock trader made $72 million, and Rolling Stone’s coverage of an alleged University of Virginia rape victim. In each case, additional reporting, and some skepticism by editors would have changed or even killed the stories.
Given my time in a newsroom, I know one of the hardest calls to make as an editor is the decision to kill a story, particularly a story that will generate readers or one in which the outlet has invested a great deal of time and resources reporting. At the core of making a decision to kill or to delay a story pending further reporting is maintaining the credibility of the media outlet and, to a certain extent, of all journalists.
Every time a reported story turns out to be false, it erodes the public’s trust of the news media, and even well-reported stories are viewed skeptically.