When you can publish at the push of a button, what constitutes adequate time for fair response?
This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign
By Lindsay Purchase
As print confines give way to the freedom of online, journalists face increasing pressure to be fast and first. Readers can follow along as a story develops, monitoring reporters’ tweets or updates made to a published story as it evolves.
But rapid publishing technology brings the risk that stories will be posted before their subjects have the chance to weigh in.
Traditional fair response ethics dictate that any time people are depicted negatively, they must be given a chance to respond, said Shauna Snow-Capparelli, associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University. “It’s both for the complete reporting and to be sure that the story is accurate,” she said, and a practice that shouldn’t change for online stories.
These principles are still being upheld by the best journalists, said Stephen Ward, media ethicist and former head of UBC’s journalism school. But he believes it’s a decreasing proportion.
“Given the speed in which we do journalism today … the willingness to actually take time to give another perspective, another space in the story, I think that, along with many other traditional forms of writing has certainly declined,” he said.
Whether problematic fair response practices afflict the industry overall or are exclusively in the domain of online media is a source of debate.
Snow-Capparelli believes that readers may be seeing more unethical reporting practices due to the vast amount of online media. But it’s not an online-specific issue, she said.
Toronto Star reporter Robert Cribb disagrees. He said he experienced this discrepancy first-hand in Vice and Canadaland responses to his joint reporting with the CBC on their Police, Power and Privacy series.
“It seems to be two very different protocols in place in the Canadian media landscape,” Cribb contends.
Cribb said he and CBC reporter Dave Seglins weren’t given adequate opportunity to response before the publication of Vice reporter Jordan Pearson’s story, “Canadian Media Is Selling Citizens Short In a Nationwide Surveillance Debate.” While initial emails were sent directly to the reporters, follow-up questions were sent to CBC and Toronto Star inboxes neither reporter had access to 90 minutes before Pearson’s deadline.
After Cribb raised concerns about the story, Vice retracted it, stating, “We fell short on providing a balanced analysis of the issues at heart.” (Vice later published an interview with Cribb and Seglins on their reporting.)
“While different news organizations, including Vice, have their own standards and practices … no one organization can lay claim to the ‘gold standard’ of what constitutes a fair amount of time for response to be provided,” Vice Canada head of communications Chris Ball said in an email.
“In this case, we deemed the amount of time given to be inappropriate and took action to correct our error, quickly and transparently.”
Seglins and Cribb also took issue with a Canadaland Short Cuts episode that was critical of their reporting. Seglins said he didn’t realize a direct message on Twitter from Canadaland host and publisher Jesse Brown a day before the podcast was published was a “journalistic inquiry.”
Brown doesn’t believe he needed to seek response before editorializing, but said Canadaland’s fair response practices for original reporting are consistent with industry best practices.
He argues that it’s inaccurate to attribute problematic fair response practices specifically to online media. “There’s a lazy, knee-jerk condemnation of online media that I have yet to see really substantiated.” he said.
He said he has documented errors in both legacy and online media and “there’s plenty of shame to go around.”
Toronto Star public editor Kathy English also grappled with the issue of what constitutes fair response in a 2015 column.
Updating a published story with later response is a common online practice, however.
Online magazine The Tyee’s editor-in-chief Robyn Smith said adding response post-publication risks giving readers incomplete or inaccurate information. “It’s tricky territory updating after the fact when they do get back to you because the story can change dramatically when you hear the other side,” she said.
When Tyee reporters are not able to reach a source before publication, they provide information on the exact methods used to contact story subjects. This can mitigate concerns about fairness.
“The more we’re transparent, we let them (the audience) know what we do, how we do and one of the most important things is why we do it, then the more they can start to understand what we do and how necessary it is,” Snow-Capparelli said.
Seglins added, “I think it behooves all of us in our industry to talk about these kinds of problems and dilemmas and know the potential shortfalls, or pitfalls, and problems that arise when we don’t take time to get our facts right.”
In a time of rampant fake news and media distrust, examining questions of fairness and best practice is of vital importance.
Editor’s note, April 27, 2016 1:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the retracted Vice story was titled “The RCMP Is Using the Media to ‘Create Moral Panic’ About Encryption.” The retracted story is in fact “Canadian Media Is Selling Citizens Short In a Nationwide Surveillance Debate.” We apologize for the error.
Lindsay Purchase is a Toronto-based editor and freelance writer. Follow her @LindsayPurchase.