The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Opinion

May 26, 2014

Unlike social media, press needs to document its stories

An Editor's Notes

- — We convened the first meeting of The Herald’s Reader Advisory Panel Thursday morning, when Publisher Sharon Sorg, Business Editor Michael Roknick and I had an interesting conversation about a variety of coverage topics with them.

Jim Cardamon, Gerald Mitchell, Joanne Titus and Scott Flanders are area residents who are members of The Herald’s Reader Advisory Panel. We’ll meet regularly throughout the year and talk about The Herald and its coverage.

One of the discussions centered on the question: “Why can something be reported on social media or be a part of discussion in a community but never reported in The Herald?”

It all boils down to verification for libel purposes. Until a precedent is set, no one is going to get sued for libel because of misinformation or character assassination on Facebook or Twitter.

Folks sue for libel because of damage to their reputations and seek monetary compensation for that marring of that reputation (punitive damages). How much money would a person get from a Facebook poster?

Exactly – which is why the likelihood of libel suits stemming from a Facebook post will be rare, if at all. This is why anything goes on Facebook.

Newspapers operate under far different legal standards. Not only is what we print have to be verified by some official source like a police report, court document, or public meeting transcript, but if challenged legally, a story has be provable as true in a court of law. It’s a far different standard than information posted on social media sites.

School districts throughout the country are notorious for massaging their images and handling most of their problems in-house, rather than calling police – for the very reason that they know when police are called, events become a matter of official public record and likely will be reported.

Students may post what happened in school on Facebook and write about it for days, but unless the newspaper can get an official account of what unfolded – from police or an official school source – that can stand up to a legal challenge, chances are you won’t read about it.

In a related matter, I spend a great deal of time talking with people who call and challenge the breadth or the accuracy of information contained in a police report.

My answer to them is to call the police, and if they change their report, we’ll change our story accordingly. “What the police told you isn’t what really happened” is the common cry on the phone and on social media. But that’s the official document from which we work, and we don’t change the story based on information supplied by unhappy callers.

Have a great holiday

As we pay homage to our veterans today, have some fun on this unofficial kickoff to summer. As you grill ribs, chicken, steaks, or burgers, think about the days not so long ago when snow covered your grill and summer was only a fleeting thought. At last, here we are, and enjoy.

Jim Raykie is the executive editor of The Herald. His column appears on Mondays.

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