Getting the Story Right

Deborah Fisher, senior editor for news at The Tennessean, wrote a column in last Sunday’s edition about the paper’s policy for using anonymous sources and its commitment to accurate reporting.

“The most important factor for us in using an anonymous source is that the information given us by the source is true.” At first glance that seems like a “duh” statement for a news editor to make.

Unfortunately, getting a story right rather than just getting a story is not always a priority for some media outlets these days.

Sloppy reporting, lack of accountability and pressure to be first to break a story are all contributing factors in the decline of journalism.

“It’s too easy for people to hide behind anonymity, planting information with no accountability,” Ms. Fisher continues. “And when you’re not accountable, isn’t it easier to stretch the truth?”

I couldn’t agree more, and I hope some of Ms. Fisher’s colleagues at other news media outlets read her column and take it to heart.

Recently I became aware of one of our local TV stations carrying a report alleging a businessman had lost a $1 million judgment. I know the man and when I asked him about the report, he said a lawsuit had been filed but no judgment was rendered. In fact, the case hasn’t even been to court yet.

It turns out the TV station got its information from a less-than-credible source. Even worse, all the reporter who covered the story needed to do was call the court to verify the information and he would have found out it wasn’t true, but he didn’t bother.

Apparently, truth and the businessman’s reputation were less important to him than getting the story on air that evening. Soon, the false report was picked up by other media outlets that likewise didn’t bother to check out the facts.

The Tennessean’s Williamson AM section reported the man was being held in the county jail, which also was not true.

No wonder so many people don’t trust the news media these days. And no wonder Ms. Fisher felt it necessary to state what should be obvious: that truth is the most important factor in any news story.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

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