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Pugh: Speed can damage media credibility

March 31, 2010

By Sarah Ruholl
Eastern Illinois University

The hypermedia revolution is adding speed to the already moving target of journalism ethics. A breaking story can be put out instantly and reach a large audience because of Twitter, Facebook, news Web sites and other online outlets.

Mitch Pugh talks about credibility. Photo by John Ryan

Jumping on this need for speed can be dangerous to a paper’s credibility, Mitch Pugh said at an APME/MPI NewsTrain session at the Daily Herald offices in Arlington Heights, Ill. On Friday, March 26. Pugh is the editor of the Sioux City Journal in Iowa.

Pugh recommended that all newsrooms develop a policy for handling breaking news online. A policy should focus on adapting, but retaining, traditional journalistic ethical standards to the Internet.

“We define how we use new technology,” Pugh said. “It does not define us.”

Regardless of the format, journalists still need to seek the truth and report it fully, minimize harm and act independently. Maintaining these standards is the way to standout in the mass of bloggers and “citizen journalists” that are crowding the Internet.

The office water cooler gossip mill has essentially moved to the Internet, specifically Facebook. It is a good place to find story ideas, but it is not a strong or reliable source for a story.

The upside of these sites is that reporters can learn about a potential news event before it happens. It can be tempting to run with these stories before anything actually happens. Often, this makes the organization seem like alarmists. The role of a journalist is to inform, not alarm, Pugh said.

It is essential to find qualified sources, solid facts and good context, he said. These have always been the basic tenets of journalism, but it is now easy to forget them in the rush to break a story.

As facts are confirmed on a breaking story, they can be added easily and immediately.

“Don’t run anything until you know it’s true,” Pugh said.

The way news outlets think about ethics and news value is changing, even though the core is the same. Developing a new way to approach these subjects needs to be done, Pugh said.

He recommended a group discussion on the different potential approaches to develop the policy. The group approach helps because ethics is a gray area; everyone thinks differently to come to an ethical conclusion.

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