Seeking fairness and balance in the 24/7 news cycle

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I received a letter late last week from Tiara Yachts CEO David Slikkers about a story we posted on our site last Wednesday regarding a jury judgment in a consumer warranty case against Tiara and Volvo Penta of the Americas.

David was upset that the company had been asked to comment on the suit on a busy day inside a window of just 45 minutes to meet the reporter’s morning deadline for our newsletter.

David told me in his letter that the “rush to publish” was neither reasonable nor did it contribute to a “fair and balanced” report, especially given the trial had ended several months earlier. He also said the phrase “did not immediately return requests for comment” was misleading, since he had been given so little time to respond.

A respected boatbuilder, Slikkers raises issues that have been magnified by the advent of the 24/7 news cycle and our ability to publish stories on the Web quickly and update them several times a day as necessary, even on weekends. I appreciate and understand his concerns and hope he now will offer his insights on the matter.

Some background and, hopefully, some perspective:

For the last several years, we’ve all seen a fundamental and ongoing transformation of not only the marine industry but marine journalism and the media at large, much of the latter due to the reach and power and pervasiveness of the online world.

I’m not sure the Web makes for “better” journalism, but it is the reality we all work and live with today. The ability to publish so fast challenges the traditional standards of good journalism, where the goal is fairness, balance and accuracy. Deadline reporting has always been a tough business. It is even more so today with the Web. You don’t always get it exactly right for any number of reasons when the clock is ticking right behind your ear. Getting both sides of a story is fundamental to balance. On that point, I am certain both David and I agree.

The Web is hungry, gaping, always awake. It is the personification of the mantra “speed is life.” Stories can be updated or modified in real time, mistakes quickly corrected — and just as easily made — new information added as it’s received, and so on. It is both blessing and curse.

Print is finite, more measured, more nuanced. You still build stories brick upon brick, but the pace is different. In print, the lag time between editions makes it more difficult to quickly “unring the bell.” Errors or miscues sit for the duration of the print cycle, be it a day, a week or a month, until they can be corrected.

Within Trade Only, our approach to new media breaks down this way: The Web is where we break news, and our monthly print magazine is where we try to analyze it. It’s the difference between a 200-word summary and a 2,000-word article.

Speed vs. light.

“With the ability to publish in real time on the Web, our world has accelerated rapidly — and in our businesses, we need to be able to react quickly, essentially at a moment’s notice. In the proverbial blink of an eye, writers and editors are asked to drop this and move over to that.”

I wrote that for a panel discussion I took part in at this year’s Miami International Boat Show. I also spoke about the skills necessary for success as a marine journalist today. What’s important today? Speed, accuracy, versatility, subject knowledge, fairness — that hasn’t changed. And the ability to produce an increasingly greater volume of content, without sagging or burning out. Everyone wears lots of hats.

And then there are the intangibles — good instincts, good judgment. With news cycles compressed and our ability to publish in minutes on the Web, we all need a good sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a good internal compass. Fairness and balance relies on having as close to perfect pitch as possible. That’s asking a lot.

We all have learned a number of lessons in the Great Recession.

When the economy soured, we at Trade Only took our share of criticism for our coverage of the decline, especially the tone of our daily Web stories. We were chastised for exaggerating how bad things were, or for simply publishing negative stories and ignoring positive ones. And more than one person told me that if the general media — and specialized press such as ourselves — would only focus more on the good things, the economy would improve. If only life worked that way.

In-house, the critical feedback prompted discussions of not only what we were covering but also how we were covering events. My goal was not to avoid reporting on difficult stories of interest and import to our industry but to make sure the coverage was as balanced, measured and honest as we could make it — and not overhyped by slathering on incendiary adjectives as businesses closed or laid off workers. We had more than a few “discussions” about headlines I thought would benefit from draining some of the air from them.

My point, I guess, is this: We tried to be sensitive to the uncertainty and fear of so many of the workers and companies we wrote about. We faced the same painful “downsizing” here. We had to let colleagues go to survive, but the experience left me hollowed out. I felt then — and still do — that we are all in this together.

This is a long way of getting around to David Slikkers and his concerns. The issues he raises are important reminders that the world in which reporters and editors gather and publish information for the Web is different than it is for traditional print media. The pace and deadlines are different. Just the definition of what is newsworthy and what is not is debatable.

Do we want information and clarity, or are we merely trolling for sensational headlines? When do you publish a story and when do you wait for more information? What is an appropriate amount of time for a comment? Even when the timing of breaking news is such that we can give a company 12 hours to respond, we wait and sometimes never hear a peep. If we hear of a court decision from a plaintiff’s attorney, is it news or is it somehow tainted?

There are no simple answers. I am sorry if we lost the confidence of an industry leader like David. If he needed more time to comment and help us deliver a more balanced story, then we should have waited. Alas, we had no way to know except in hindsight. As it turns out, David told me he would have commented. I wish we would have had his perspective in the piece.

David’s concern over the “rush to publish” is a valid one. We live every day with the time constraints and challenges of publishing a daily e-newsletter. In the best of all worlds, every story would be perfectly balanced, and time would always be on our side. But that’s not the world we live in. This just strengthens our resolve to keep working at anchoring our efforts in the cornerstones of good journalism.

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