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Investigate, discuss, report: Covering news responsibly

Posted at 5:08 PM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 17:28:21-05

Editor’s Note: This story is part of Scripps’ National News Literacy Week. This campaign promotes news literacy as a fundamental life skill for America to have an educated and empowered populace.

It’s not something most people have to think about, but it’s something we discuss at News 5. When a person is alleged to have committed a crime, at what point is it responsible and fair to make their name public?

For example, when social media users recently named an individual at the scene of a crime, which happened to a local woman who was photographed inside the Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6, when do those allegations constitute a reportable fact?

Journalists wrestle with questions like that every day. To help our newsroom navigate thorny issues, we’ve spent the last year discussing and creating coverage guidelines. They’re guidelines, not rules. Rules tell you what to do. Guidelines illuminate areas where thoughtful consideration is warranted. They’re meant to prompt conversations that lead to coverage that reflects our values. This undertaking was sparked by equity, diversity and inclusion meetings and discussions our station held in 2019.

We talked in those meetings about how there are many ways to report the news – not all of them great. You can report it the way it’s always been reported, without ever questioning why you’re still doing it the same way they did it years or decades ago. You can report everything you find, throw it all against the wall, and let the viewer sort it out. You can report tepidly, only from official sources. Or, and this is what we aim for, you can report with intention.

Reporting with intention means that the work strives to reflect the newsroom’s values. Yes, there’s that word again. Values. Different newsrooms have different values. Broadly stated, our values are grounded in ethical journalism in pursuit of the truth, fairness to those who are the subject of our reports and consideration of the communities we cover.

Over the last two years we’ve taken time to spell out what this means in practice, for example, not reporting on police scanner traffic, a commitment to depth over informational regurgitation, as well as providing descriptions of suspected criminals only when they contain some level of specificity.

We’re a competitive newsroom – we want to get the news to your first – but more than anything, we value accuracy. Something assistant news director Karen Van Vleck and I say to each other often is, “Better to be slow and right, than fast and wrong.”

What does that look like? Let’s go back to the story of the woman who social media users placed inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. Knowing that federal charges for those who stormed the building were forthcoming, we knew that publicly identifying her would be tantamount to accusing a private citizen of federal crimes. Social media users may feel emboldened to make that allegation, but news organizations carry an ethical responsibility, as well as legal risk.

Because we had unanswered questions about the woman in the photo, some of which were raised in the course of our reporting, we discussed the story, and we chose not to report on allegations made about her on social media. We only named her after she was charged by federal authorities several days later, when charging documents confirmed that she was, in fact, the woman in the widely circulated photo.

But suppose it wasn’t the same woman, and we had named her based on social media conjecture. It would have undermined the trust you place in us to report the news fairly and accurately, and we could have faced legal exposure.

This was an instance in which we were slow and right. That's what intention looks like.

Our viewers have shown time and time again that they trust us to be accurate. Building and keeping that trust is what matters most.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Email: joe.donatelli@wews.com.