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.