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Blogging fear: Publishing false info

February 9, 2015

Experience the harm

Photo: Stefan Powell (CC)

I asked for your biggest fears in blogging, and y’all came through.

On Twitter, Albert Pride shared that he’s concerned about “conveying false and potentially harmful information.”

That’s a good one to start off this series. As a journalist, I always have that editor’s voice — in my head or bellowing in my ear — that reminds me that I must get it right.

Let me share a few quick ways to avoid publishing bad info.

1. Don’t rush. One reason we publish false information is that we are hasty. You may be putting pressure on yourself to go faster, especially if you trade in industry news and rumors. Even bloggers want to be the first with a scoop, and that can lead to some horrifying and embarrassing mistakes.

Journalism is a process that takes time. It takes time to have information sourced from more than one person. It takes time to have an editor review our work. It takes time to consider the fundamental questions: Do I have everything right? Do I have all the facts? Is this newsworthy, or merely click-worthy?

2. Don’t run rumors. I haven’t been in a newsroom in a decade, but I still hear rumors all the time. Gossip can be a good starting point for reporters, but it should not be the end point, too.

Reporters spend (sometimes waste) a lot of hours running down rumors, attempting to find documentation or witnesses that can verify or dispel them. Bloggers have earned a bad reputation for skipping this crucial step and publishing rumors as fact.

I am often tempted to publish hearsay, especially when I hear a rumor again and again. But I don’t. It ain’t worth it.

3. Consider carefully the ethical implications. Accurate, truthful information can still be potentially harmful. We often think our options as bloggers are limited to two choices: Publish or don’t publish.

This is a false dilemma, and even major news organizations fall prey to this lazy thinking.

Alabama Media Group recently published partial information from a sealed 2010 divorce case which implicated a public official in an extramarital affair with the wife. In a separate story explaining the reason to run the exposé, the reporter wrote:

“This is a difficult news decision as there are arguments on both sides. But there is no half-measure available to us — we either publish, or we don’t. We can be undecided, but we must decide.”

Nonsense. Just a few options include requesting to have the case unsealed … publishing online only … publishing in print only … publishing in the context of a series of cheating pols … having the pol write a first-hand account … sitting on the story till it becomes more relevant (if ever) … reducing it to a paragraph in a longer investigative piece … omitting the official’s name … leaking it to a competing news organization …

Ethics is a process, not a oversimplified question of right vs. wrong. Journalists, bloggers and citizens can learn this process quickly and practice it over and over. Take the ethics walk and discover a new world of options.

4. Correct your mistakes. I have made my share of mistakes as a journalist and a blogger. And I have corrected the ones I know about quickly and transparently.

When someone alerts me, I double-check the new info, then publish it. Having and using a corrections policy is a critical step in defending yourself in defamation suits.

5. Consult your attorney. You can ask me for legal advice, but since I’ve never been to law school, my advice will be terrible. Use an attorney for your questions about errors, libel and more.

6. Consider errors and omissions insurance. A policy can help limit the costs and the damage to your company.

Don’t let this fear of putting false or potentially harmful info stop you from blogging. Verify your info, and write with fairness and honesty. And be prepared to make corrections if needed and to stand up for your work always.

Tell me about your biggest fear in blogging,
and I might answer it in a future post.

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