The Quality Dilemma: Publish or Investigate?

Posted: December 22, 2013 in Media
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German freelance journalist Daniel Bröckerhoff produces stories for ZAPP, the NDR network magazine show about the media, and for the einsplus talk-show “Klub Konkret.”   He’s also burnin’ it up on Twitter, where he recently proved that he’s not too vain to take a little criticism.  He then documented the whole exchange in a blog post, which I’ve translated below.  I’ve also translated his follow-up piece, which delves into the rights and responsibilities of journalists who want to have some kind of presence on the Internet.

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Posted on Dec. 9, 2013 in HP-Features, Media

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As a freelance journalist with demands (also on himself) I’m confronting a dilemma:  Get the information out, sometimes without rigorous examination, because I want to be quick, or cut back on my quantity — and thereby risk drawing less attention?

At least two professional mistakes crept into my Twitter feed in the past few days.  They’re not serious, but they bug me.

On Thursday, during the 12-hour #Xaver-Sturm-ICE-Fahrt [ICE train trip during Winter Storm Xaver], I distributed this fake Paris Hilton tweet:

Clearly: a gag. You wouldn’t put it past her, so my skepticism was rather restrained. I looked briefly at the account that posted the tweet, and had little reason to be suspicious.

Briefly suspicious, but too tired to investigate

Quite soon I thought of the site that had prompted some discussion a few months ago.  On lemmetweetthatforyou.com, random tweets from random people are fabricated and then spewed out into the world.  Giesler, my friend and colleague, had even warned last March that media could be tripped up by it.

But, after two tapings and an early wake-up call for a flight to Munich, I was too tired to investigate more closely whether someone was getting away with a joke here.  Besides, the Internet connection on the ICE was weak.  It worked for Twitter, but websites recreated the feel of a 56K modem:  slooooooww.

And so I distributed the fake.  The retweets proliferated.  Everybody laughed.

Fortunately, I also have discerning and alert followers: @nils90 and @fluestertweets both warned that it smelled of a fake and lemmetweetthatforyou.com.  @Fluestertweets then dug up the visual proof:

[ @fluestertweets posts a picture of a tweet from @ParisHilton: “Dear People, what was passed off as mine here is a fake. I don’t know Mandela at all.”]

I withdrew the tweet, which earned me (justifiable) criticism from @kopfduell:

Well.  What am I supposed to say to that?  I tried the Transparency-Move:

It worked: @kopfduell pronounced himself satisfied.

Transparency better than a cover-up

But I was still aggravated.  I still find that it’s better to handle mistakes with transparency than to conceal them.  But it’s even better not to make any mistakes.

That’s not nearly so easy, though, when you try to swim in the stream of news as I do from time to time.  As a free journalist I try to distribute the most exclusive or newest information possible.  For one thing, to be more interesting to new followers, readers, or whomever.  For another, to enhance my standing with my colleagues.

As always in media, it comes down to one thing above all:  attention, which can then be monetized in some way.  Not because of the money.  But to be able to do something in life, that I do every day in the media.

My “leak” from the press release

But the effort can also backfire.  As I left the dentist’s this morning, I read with surprise a report in the Tagesschau app, which said that the Axel-Springer firm is taking over the news broadcaster N24.  There wasn’t much more information, so I followed up via Twitter DM with a colleague from N24:  What’s going on there?  I was immediately furnished with information from the company meeting, which I distributed on Twitter.

As I was tweeting that, I was standing in the hallway of the dentist’s office.  I had neither looked for nor read the press release about it.  I should have, though.  Which was immediately drilled into my head (yeah, Twitter is fast):

As a writer for the strict NDR media magazine ZAPP I would side with my colleagues every time:  “A journalist would really stoop to this?!  Selling readily accessible information as a ‘Leak?!’  It’s more like a leek!  A road apple!  What a wheezing hack!  Dullard!  Scandalmonger!  Swill-pusher, dope!”

Facepalm: hangdog journalist is hangdog.

I tried to defend myself as a freelance journalist (as with @kopfduell).  This time with the Ironic Self-Deprecation Move:

I thus withdraw my daft attempt to publish an exclusive scoop.  As a freelance journalist I’m once again confronted by the question of what’s better:  to be quick, and risk mistakes, or to be cautious and thus not swim along in the stream of news.

How much quality?  How much quantity?

Clearly:  quality must come before quality.  But if I had thoroughly investigated all the information from all the 35,000 Tweets I’ve published so far, as I do with information for ZAPP reports, I would have written only a fraction of them.

It’s often a mixture of “I trust the sources” and “the information sounds plausible,” which prompts me to pass something along on the Internet.  I regard blog entries on this site in a similar way.  For me, they’re more like work in progress than “finished articles that I don’t (have to) correct anymore.”

Because:  In both cases there’s the possibility of correction, of retraction, of adjustment.  Things here can also be reworked through #Followerpower or #Crowdsourcing, as just happened in the case of the faked Paris Hilton tweet.

With linear media like television, or more static forms of journalism like the fully-produced video, that’s not so easy.  So in those formats I let diligence have the upper hand.

Hands off Twitter?  No thank you.

Is that a mistake?  Perhaps.  The conundrum “Publish or Investigate” will be ever more pressing, the faster our media become.  As a journalist, I have to recognize ever more quickly what’s genuine and what isn’t, what’s plausible and what’s nonsense, what’s a rumor and what’s a scoop.

The plethora of information that can be spread by all sorts of people doesn’t make it any easier.  But in the end that’s the job of a journalist, for whom only the smallest possible number of mistakes is acceptable.

The alternative?  To keep completely out of the “fast” business on Twitter & Co. and publish only long, original stories like Stefan Niggemeier and many others.  But that is no alternative for me right now.  I like the quick exchange too much for that.

The risk?  If I make too many mistakes, things could go for me as they have with BILD [the German periodical]:  reputation ruined.  Credibility lost.  I want to avoid that at all costs.

But:  Where is the mark?  When has a journalist gambled away his credibility?  What would you say?

tldr

As a journalist I must strike a balance between quality and quantity, so that I don’t risk my credibility through too many false reports. That’s getting increasingly difficult online. #mimimi

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