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News reporters must continue to maintain journalistic ethics in digital age

(Jae Su/Daily Bruin)

By Lauren Bui

Feb. 12, 2020 11:13 p.m.

It’s normal for people to question what they hear.

But when people have to doubt organizations whose sole purpose is relaying the facts, there is bound to be turmoil.

Five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter accident along with eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, on Jan. 26. The news of Bryant’s death shattered the Los Angeles community and left the globe in utter disbelief.

It also left the public fully dependent on the media for confirmation on who died and what happened.

Unfortunately, respected journalists and media companies leaked rumors in an effort to break the news first, compromising journalistic ethics and respect for the victims’ families.

TMZ broke the news on Twitter within an hour after the accident, long before officials could even inform family members. Though TMZ’s report was accurate, one report among many included ABC’s Matt Gutman’s, whose report claimed all four of Bryant’s children were believed to have been in the helicopter.

False reports spread like wildfire, and when prominent reporters perpetuate these narratives on a platform like Twitter, it adds fuel to the fire.

Especially when the misinformation originates from reputable sources, this tumult of clashing narratives creates distrust and disrespect toward the media while leaving many in a state of confusion. The immediate coverage of Bryant’s passing is not an anomaly, but a broader call to how publications must act mindfully to accommodate the growth of journalism in the digital age. As social media changes the way information is consumed and reported, journalists must work twice as hard to ensure accuracy and decency precede gratification from publishing first.

And it’s not just readers that hasty reporting harms.

Shortly after the crash was confirmed, the Los Angeles County sheriff suggested that he was disappointed in TMZ for publishing the piece before Bryant’s wife, Vanessa Bryant, and her family were informed.

Jim Newton, a public policy lecturer and former Los Angeles Times editor, said news organizations are not equipped to notify families that a loved one has died.

“That’s obviously among the worst moments a family can imagine. To get the news that way just compounds an already tragic and horrifying day,” Newton said.

It’s the job of journalists to be first. But when a breaking story of this nature arises, media organizations must assess how and when they publish their information.

And TMZ’s untimely publication crossed a fine line in journalism.

Especially in the case of tragedies, journalists must be wary of their responsibility to present sensitive information respectfully and appropriately.

Peter Yim, a first-year pre-psychobiology student, remembered his disbelief when first hearing the news of Bryant’s death.

“I didn’t believe it initially, but when I realized it was real, I felt like crying,” Yim said. “I saw a post on Instagram about two hours after the crash.”

Journalists don’t just write newspapers anymore – they create posts seen on timelines and feeds across the world. Social media alerts the public instantaneously and allows for immediate access, which makes it all the more dangerous when the wrong information spreads.

At colleges like UCLA, misinformation can spread quickly, considering how electronically savvy most of its students are. With such a large population constantly in close proximity to one another, it’s easy for a rumor to be passed on as a reality to some.

Leo Jiang, a first-year psychology and statistics student, said the paradox with digital news is a multifaceted problem.

“Since we live in a fast-paced environment, getting instantaneous news can be very important,” Jiang said. “However, this also means that false information can spread faster, and sources might spin information to get more views.”

Inevitably, media outlets cannot erase information once the public consumes it. Even if the rumors are proven to be false, the damage has been done.

Journalists and media publications can gain success by publishing first in the digital age – and the money speaks for itself.

Because of ad targeting on the internet, ad revenues may experience an upward trend, with much of the profit most likely going toward the reporters, meaning they would have even more incentive to publish breaking news first.

But it’s not always about being in a lucrative business.

While Twitter engagement will surely rake in profits, inaccurate reporting doesn’t just misinform readers – it damages the reputation of the news organization itself.

Newton said he teaches that the growing demand for digital news means journalists have to be more efficient and just as accurate.

“The emergence of new forms of communication in my mind does not change ethical principles, but sometimes it makes them more difficult to apply,” Newton said.

It can be argued that in such a fast-paced modern world, people demand information immediately – no one wants to spend hours scouring the web, or even worse, a newspaper. With the rise of digital journalism, news in the format of a 280-character tweet seems quite appealing.

However, as digital media’s global span continues to advance across the world, it’s important to evaluate the speed at which it’s evolving.

There are no set rules when it comes to reporting on a breaking tragedy. But journalistic ethics exist for a reason, and journalists would be wise to heed those moral judgments moving forward – especially in the age of social media reporting.

To inform the public, digital media can truly be a great tool.

But when abused for views and greed, its purpose is painfully tarnished.

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Lauren Bui
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