Let’s face it, journalists are airing and/or publishing more mistakes than they used to. So it is a good time to reiterate some tried and true guidelines to determine when information is safe to tell the world.
Breaking News Guidelines
Two sources minimum have confirmed the information
You know the names or groups confirming the fact(s)
Another journalist looked over your information
Veteran journalists are looking at this list and rolling their eyes. Yes, I know, the old standard was really three sources. In this day and age of “WE MUST BE FIRST” three is not always going to happen. Hell, I think it’s questionable if some news organizations actually require more than one source before going with breaking news. That’s especially if we define a source. Which we need to do now. A source is NOT another journalist you overheard talking to the boss about the story, or the assignment desk repeating information while on the phone and writing notes in the assignment file. I say this because I guarantee this is a daily issue in most newsrooms. Also a source is not what the reporter or assignment editor said a story was in a summary during an editorial meeting. You have to treat those pitches as unconfirmed even if they cite a phone call or email stating the facts. You must still verify because the information more than likely was not vetted yet. Think about it. The majority of stories in a newscast rundown actually end up with key differences than during the original pitch in the editorial meeting. I am saying this so that tease writers, promotions departments and general managers remember, editorial meetings are to pitch ideas. They are not vetted stories, and a statement of absolute facts. You must verify the truth of the information later. That starts with asking who are the minimum TWO sources of information. A valid source is someone directly involved in the story, with expertise. A police officer on the scene. An accountant who saw and worked on the budget. A teacher who actually created lesson plans on the curriculum. PIO’s do qualify as sources because they speak on behalf of the agency. They are considered official. So when they screw up, it’s on them. Also, they are essentially the PR person for whomever they represent. So, they’re facts will often have a slant. A good journalist will double check a PIO with their own source first, just to make sure.
Producers in particular, before you go to the booth or into the IFB of an anchor with new information, know who the information you have came from. Ask the desk or EP or whomever is calling to give you a name. This seems redundant, but I cannot tell you how often asking this simple question led to some “Um Ah, let me double check this” responses from the information provider. Having to name names, means you must have solid notes, and double checked information before sharing. And sometimes asking for the name leads to expanded information like “Well I heard reporter x tell reporter y about it while they were at their desks making calls.” That could mean anything. One asking the other’s opinion on whether the fact sounds realistic. Wondering if the source seems to actually be dodging sharing some information. Or simply talking about what they hope the story will be. None of that is confirmed enough to air the information to the world. Yet this happens all the time. A producer in a hurry to write an anchor intro or a tease, overhears a story description and writes based on that eavesdropping. Especially when it’s a breaker.
Finally, you must let another journalist look over the information first. My go to was usually my anchors. Frankly, they need to look over the information before reading it anyway to make sure they understand the story and can explain it, ad lib about it, or even read the copy in a convincing manner. Having a manager read over the information first is ideal, because most anchors will do so as well and you will quickly get two sets of critical eyes. If neither questions the validity of the facts, they are even more likely to be trustworthy. In a breaking news situation there is always a certain degree of educated guesswork. The story is ever changing. But anchors and managers need to have good BS meters. Most do and if they stop and ask, “Where is that information from,” you need to have solid, clear answers. That means checks and balances happened, and you are far less likely to end up making a huge mistake. There needs to be less embarrassing screw up reels out there for the world to see.
For more on handling breaking news check out how Survive defines breakers in the first place.