I was already putting finishing touches to the last item on my “To-Do” list for the day when a maritime reporter called to enquire about the “breaking news” he just heard that a container loaded with fire arms was seized at my company’s seaport terminal at the Tin Can Island Ports, Apapa. He also said a “reliable source” informed him that the terminal had been closed down by the Nigerian Customs Service and all staff chased out. As the company’s spokesman, he wanted my own side of the story.
I quickly deployed my team to scan the online space for any news mention of the story and lo and behold, about three online news platforms; one industry journal and two national newspapers, had published the story with a lot of errors and misrepresentations.
The truth of the matter is that a container with 441 fire arms was intercepted by the Nigerian Customs Service. The inaccuracy in the story published by the online news media is that the container was neither intercepted at our terminal nor was the terminal closed down as erroneously reported.
The next one hour was a tough one for my team and I. With each passing minute, other online media platforms were reproducing verbatim the erroneous news story published. We quickly got in touch with our contacts (which included maritime correspondents, editors and a publisher) in some of the media organizations that have published the story. We wanted to express our reservations at the misrepresentation in the story and demanded that our rebuttal, which was under processing, be published.
That was when we received the shock of our lives. None of the persons contacted knew anything about the story already published on their news sites. They all sympathized with us, apologized, promised to check how it escaped the normal gate keeping and assured that our press statement would enjoy generous mention. Eventually, two of them reverted as promised and delivered the bombshell: the web manager is expected to scan the online space for “hot” or “breaking” news story and is expected to publish before other rivals. Proper gate keeping is jettisoned.
The demand of beating others to it has put a lot of pressure on the web manager who doesn’t have the time to cross check the accuracy of the facts in the “breaking news” he stumbles on. Most of the time, editors and other professionally-trained journalists like the relevant beat reporters, are not consulted before such news are published. In the case under reference, the maritime correspondent of one of the leading national newspapers was still at the Customs office, Apapa, gathering facts and relevant details about the seized container in order to write her story, when we called to inform her that her company’s news site has already published the inaccurate report. She was simply dumbfounded and angry. As the reporter on the beat, her opinion wasn’t sought. The web manager just published.
One clear insight from this experience is the disconnect in the news processing system in an average news room. The needed synergy that would guarantee proper gate keeping is clearly lacking.
Most of the web managers that are saddled with the onerous task of managing the online platforms of the news organisations are, in most cases, deficient in the principles and ethics of journalism that gives vent to factual and balanced reporting. There are clear dangers in such trend. The image of victims, whether individual or corporate, of such unprofessional attitude, is damaged; the reputation of such media organizations as a purveyor of truthful and reliable news is called to question while the unsuspecting members of the public, who are unwittingly fed with lies, are short changed in their quest for truthful information.
To correct this, news organizations must elevate their reputation as a reliable news source above the haste that accompanies publishing “breaking news” that are riddled with lies and errors.
Officers who have responsibilities of managing the online news portals should be properly schooled in journalism ethics. Getting facts right and balancing their stories with views from concerned parties must be sacrosanct. They must also be made aware of the dangers of sloppiness in this regard.
Quality assurance management in the news room is an issue that needs more attention. Final gate keeping for stories meant for the online platforms should be done by very experienced and thorough hands, who will be able to sieve out the potential errors and inaccuracies.