Golden Rule Of Media: If in doubt, leave it out.
Journalistic Instinct: Everyone has an agenda.
In 2009, a rumour was kindled via a popular talk program and spread as fast as wildfire, that a container filled with children had been found at the port of Port of Spain. Since the term ‘human trafficking’ was at the time catching on and people were becoming aware that such an unfathomable thing was possible, the rumor caused momentary panic. The port was shut down so the authorities could conduct searches for the children, who were alive and dead, depending on which media report you listened too. News outlets carried so called eye witness accounts of the discovery in their updates. Interestingly, very little information was requested by the media from the police which had spearheaded the search. While the officers looked high and low, media outlets sought out their own sources of information, restless for a new angle. In the end, nothing was found on the port. There was no container, no corpses and no children. The rumor was allegedly started by disgruntled estate security officers at the port who were clamoring for wage negotiations to commence. These were the very same officers who volunteered very detailed and chilling information to the media, while the port was still being searched. They made their point: without their security services, containers filled with children may possibly slip through our borders one day. It never occurred to anyone that such a lie would be concocted for such a cause. But, when interests are involved, (as they always are) a journalist must be mindful of every possible implication when getting information from sources who are usually trusted. Sources should be treated like batteries. Yes, they power your stories for a while, but every once in a while you should check to see if they need to be changed. You will find that as a source’s circumstances and interests change, so too will the quality of their information.
Fun fact: A top level official in the trade union which was representing the officers in their dispute, was one of the key persons who offered information to the media. It is alleged that the said person called the talk program and gave the initial pieces of information regarding the container.
Why did good journalists not handle the story more carefully? Why did good journalism fail on that day? Why didn’t anyone wait until the police finished their searches before running a report? Impatience got the better of us. Yes, I am guilty of spreading the misinformation. I was one of the reporters who trusted the words of the trade union official, because he gave me access to information. Not because he was the most authorised person to get the facts from, but simply because he was there.
When journalists sacrifice credibility for access, problems will arise.
That problem is called misinformation. It is an embarrassment and integrity buster to any media house. Fast forward to 2017. A young WPC is reported missing around 9am one day, social media has become the fastest means to spread news, rumours and opinions; it’s like the pig shit in Game Of Thrones, and the chaos ensues. The first reports state her body has been found with gunshot wounds. This piece of information stayed in public for many hours, before being changed to: the WPC remains missing. No body, no shots, nothing. One social media platform is used to spread information from persons purportedly involved in the search. They claimed to have seen a body, were not allowed near it by their superiors, but it looked like the missing woman. The updates from the media are confusing. One Web page has a story about the WPC, stating she has not been found and remains missing, but the picture accompanying the story is captioned ‘shot’. It isn’t until 4pm that day that all the stories agree finally, that the woman is missing and there was no evidence to suggest she is dead. In the words of Gandalf, “hope is kindled”.
Once again access was preferred over credibility, for information on the search. Some reporters turned to their low level contacts involved in the search for information, because they wanted to have the headline first. The patient journalists waited until the ones with the authority to divulge the information supplied it to them. And they would not be rushed, but they were forthright with what they did know to those who were smart enough to ask them. The conflicting accounts shows a level of irresponsible impatience in the reporting on that day. The WPC did turn up dead, but five days later.
As a journalist, knowing the right persons or sources to turn to for information is critical to the trade. Understanding that everyone has an agenda is being aware. If your source has lost its credibility and their information gives rise to doubt, leave it out. Be conscious of the power of social media and other platforms. We cannot control their reach, influence and consequences, thus everything posted or shared must be checked, double checked and triple checked for validity, consistency and credibility. Finally, patience is needed in this fast paced information filled world. Forget the deadline and headline; the story will unfold on its own, in its own time. A journalist must tell the truth when it comes out and not spend the day adjusting rumours and misinformation, hoping they turn out to be true.