I want to make a crack about stenciling the old journalism aphorism, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” onto newsroom walls, but so few people are actually working in newsrooms it wouldn’t make sense to do it.
Maybe we can have it embedded into the background of content management systems? Maybe have it pop up like an interstitial ad when you click publish? Because it’s happened again – Reuters picked up an amazingly dramatic image of the volcano in Iceland and – surprise! – it turns out to have been overtoned.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. So I ask, does it matter? Does it matter to the reader? Does it matter to the news organization?
I think the answer to both is yes. The reader needs to see the truth (or as close an approximation as we can get to it). And news organizations need to be absolutely sure that what they’re reporting is accurate. When I think about this photo, I think about the debates we used to have in the newsroom about single source stories. If we had just one person on the record, a person we didn’t know, we’d never use that information – too risky, too much of a chance of it being wrong. With more than one source, you could judge the credibility of both to decide if it was worth reporting.
But there were times we did run with a single source – because we knew the source, because it was a trusted source whose own credibility was known and on the line.
Photos coming into a newsroom need to be treated with the same level of skepticism. If you know the source – a staffer, a freelancer you’ve dealt with – you should be able to run the image. (Of course, there are lots of examples where that turned out to not be true.) But if a photo just appears in the email inbox, from an unknown source … well, I hope there’s a massive amount of discussion about it, that there is the same level of effort going into proving its authenticity as there is with a single source story.
Somehow, I doubt that’s the case. In the rush to be first and be cheap, credibility and fact checking seem to be taking the hits.