CATEGORY: Journalism

The time a source has to respond to request for comment? Virtually none.

The deadline is now.

Thirty years ago, I faced a deadline once a day. For any reporter today, the deadline is … well, now. The technological leap into the Internet era that changed the notion of deadlines has consequences, as I wrote three years ago:

Speed kills. Accuracy dies when hordes of people, each with an electronic device capable of transmitting a story, strive to be first to tell the world what they found out — without necessarily checking its veracity.

Context dies. Because speed is the premium of the Internet era, the patience for explaining what does this mean is vanishing.

Tweets kill. Successive waves of 140-character messages are unlikely to carefully convey context, meaning and depth and breadth of description. It’s ironic that a generation branded with a short-attention span waits breathlessly for a succession of tweets — about what? And why?

But there’s another, far more subtle consequence on the notion of fairness. In my dinosaur era of once-a-day deadlines, I’d call a source on Monday afternoon. If an answering machine greeted me, I’d leave my name, my affiliation, my reason for calling — and my deadline. I might even place a second call Monday evening and a third Tuesday morning. If she had not returned my call, I would write:

Jane Doe had not responded to three phone messages seeking comment by deadline.

Today, however, the time within which a source has to respond to a message is, well, now. A reporter may begin a story at 1 p.m. and expect to post it online within minutes (see context dies above). Consequently, a phone call (tweet, Facebook message, email) to a source may not draw an immediate response. Not everyone, even seasoned PR pros or institutional information gurus, checks FB, Twitter, or email phone messages minute to minute. (If they are, how often do they have opportunities to actually think on behalf of their employers?)

So the reporter, in the spirit of fairness, writes:

Jane Doe did not respond to a message seeking comment.

So, is this actually fair in the digital era?

In online news media large and small, I have seen did not respond and failed to respond. Both suggest an assumption that the source had received the message and chose not to respond. The phrase had not yet responded does not carry that same nuance of receiving and choosing.

It may be argued that in the digital era that sources sought by journalists must be able to receive and respond to requests for comments at a moment’s notice. Well, argue away: That does not mean that it is fair for a journalist to expect source callbacks within minutes just because the deadline is now.

I wish, in these stories written on deadlines of mere minutes, reporters would tell us more about their messages left for sources. Recall, please, that stories posted online usually have a time stamp: “Posted at 1:37 p.m.” If that were the case here, then I’d like the reporter to write this:

Jane Doe had not responded to a tweet (FB, email, phone message) left at 1:15 p.m.

That would allow the reader to determine whether Jane Doe has been fairly treated. After all, in this Age of New Media, Jane obviously should have responded to the reporter’s bidding within 22 minutes, right? Surely the reporter’s message explained that’s all the time she had within which to respond?

Yes, I know: When (or if) Jane returns the call, the reporter can always update the online story. But there’s no guarantee that all who read the copy posted first will return to check for updates.

The more I examine online journalism, the more examples I find of the dictum speed kills — and what speed kills. Fairness is becoming one such victim.

4 comments on “The time a source has to respond to request for comment? Virtually none.

  1. My perception of the reporter’s world has morphed into something quite sad over the years. Oh how I wish everyone could just slow down.

  2. “Scooping” is not that big of a deal if you can’t actually provide context. See The New York Times — they are usually not the first to rush to break a story. They take their time and better work product evolves.

  3. Great piece, Denny.

    In the age where everyone knows everything all the time, saying you don’t know would be professional suicide, methinks. What scares me is that I see this deliberateness going away even in the one field where I thought it would be protected – the academy. Instant reporting is horrible – instant scholarship, which we get on complex news stories now (the motivations of the Boston bombers perhaps the most recent example – try explaining Chechnyan history/politics in 144 characters – is, in ways that I fear will reveal themselves ever more frighteningly over the coming decade(s), worse….

  4. This is one of those excellent pieces that might well give overlooked because it doesn’t involve a bombing or someone sleeping with someone else, but it’s well written, informative and provocative. Nice job.

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