The facts come first

In the rush to be first with a breaking story, facts can sometimes take a back seat; and that's not right.

On Thursday, January 12 I received a report of a CP train derailment west of Ashcroft, an hour or so after it happened. Details, at that early stage, were sketchy, and changing from moment to moment.

Over the course of the next hour or so I received further updates, but I did not post anything on The Journal’s Facebook page, as a) details were still being confirmed and b) I had not received an okay to make the news public.

Then I heard heard that CFJC news in Kamloops had received, and broadcast, information stating that 33 cars had derailed and four had gone into the Thompson.

My first thought, I must admit, was “I’ve been scooped.” Now, back before the Internet was a thing, there would have been almost no possibility of The Journal—a weekly print newspaper—getting a “scoop” (i.e. being first with a big story); but all that has changed. There is nothing to stop the paper being first with a breaking story; I just have to hear about it in time and get something up on Facebook.

My second thought, however, was “What CFJC is reporting as fact isn’t what I’m hearing.” I asked if the information I was getting could be made public, got an okay, and put up my first post at 8:21 p.m. on the 12th (29 cars derailed; none were in the river).

I don’t work in a cutthroat media environment, where multiple news sources are competing fiercely to be first with a big story; but if I did, might I have been tempted to go public with my information before getting the all-clear, for the sake of getting a scoop, and increasing visits to The Journal’s Facebook page?

No; for the same reason that when people say (as several have) in an interview, “This is off the record,” I immediately put my pen down and stop writing (yes, I record all my interviews by hand, and have hundreds of sheets of scribbled notes to prove it). To me it’s a matter of trust. If I as a journalist start breaking trust with people, and word gets around—as it certainly will—no one will give me the time of day, let alone an interview.

Besides, up until the moment when I was able to go public, the facts about the derailment were in a state of flux, and I wanted to be sure of them before I put anything on the Facebook page. I knew that once I posted something—even if I put in a caveat that the details were preliminary, and might change—it would spread like wildfire, in a way that no subsequent correction I made could ever match. As Jonathan Swift wrote, in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

We’re hearing a lot about “fake news” these days; which, to my mind, makes it all the more important for journalists to make sure that when they publish, they have their facts straight and confirmed. In this case, The Journal was second (with the facts) rather than first (with the story). And I’m perfectly fine with that.



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