'Traditional' rules still apply

The lessons of "get it first, but get it right," and the journalistic tradition of clear, concise, and correct have never been more important to the public affairs profession.

Clear. Concise. Correct. Those “3 Cs” were constantly reinforced when I attended Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism as a graduate student. The mnemonic lesson served me well – as a journalist, a political campaign manager, and, today, in the agency world.

The terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon served as a proving ground for both the news media and the new media. There was a clear winner: the news media.

And this is a good lesson – and an excellent reminder – for everyone in public affairs: credibility and accuracy is everything.

The Boston Globe and smaller Boston Herald, as well as local Boston radio and TV, did an excellent job of staying true to the core values of journalism. Twitter, other social media, and even a few major news outlets didn't do quite as well at being accurate sources on the attack and tragedy. 

Reliability and credibility are the hallmarks of the news media. And as we view the news coverage of the Boston Marathon in retrospect, it serves as an important lesson to the public, elected officials, regulatory agencies, the news media, and social media.

Accuracy counts. Checking facts counts. Being right is more important than being first. Or, in the instance of new media, hitting a button to send someone else's rumor into millions of TweetDecks isn't news, journalism, reporting, or fact. It's simply hitting a keyboard with no responsibility for truth, accuracy, or reality.

Don't get me wrong. The Boston Marathon example and the failure of social media to accurately dispense information is not an indictment of new media. Rather, it is a warning about two unassailable truths, at least for the time being:

1. The professional training of journalists, their standards, editing process, ethics, and responsibilities are an essential and important part of our democracy and of getting the story right for today and for history.

2. New media is still evolving, but unless it establishes the same rules as the “old media” it will never have the cachet or respect that traditional journalists have earned.

There has not been a more exciting time in media since Johannes Gutenberg rolled the first bible off his press. New media gives everyone the ability to print his or her own “bible.” The trouble is that very few have the same training, responsibility, liability, and code of ethics that a journalist does. Thus, there remains a Grand Canyon-sized gap between the reliability and credibility of the news media and the new media.

The same can be said about our profession. The lessons of “get it first, but get it right,” and the journalistic tradition of clear, concise, and correct have never been more important to our profession, especially as public affairs and PR evolve and play a greater role today than ever before.

The use of social media by agencies to explain issues, promote platforms, and disseminate news must follow the traditional journalistic standards if we are to continue to expand and build credibility for our clients.

We all welcome the current democratization of news through social media. However, we should all continue to support, venerate, and pay to ensure traditional news media remains alive and continues to set the standard for accuracy, fairness, accountability, and training of future journalists so that we don't have to rely on news from every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a mobile device.

As they used to say in Chicago journalism, and it holds true today in politics, news, and life: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That's what's missing from new media, but thank goodness it's alive and well – at least for the moment – in the news media.  

Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. A former journalist and political campaign manager, he has spent the past 20-plus years helping a wide variety of clients develop their public affairs strategies. He can be reached at singer@singersf.com.

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