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This is the first of a series of occasional posts about standards, best practices and ethics from the folks who are on the front lines of the subject and have agreed to share some of the insights and reminders they regularly share internally with colleagues inside their companies. We call this collection THE BRIGHT LINE.

In the folklore of journalism, there’s always an honored place for the crusty editor with the courage to publish a controversial story.

But as a top Associated Press editor (crusty himself) told me years ago: “What really takes courage is not to publish a story.”

Sometimes at AP we find ourselves in situations where publishing would be by far the easiest option. There are cases where the information is on the record, others are running it and readers are eager to see it.

But something holds us back: a sense of caution about whether the material is actually right, or whether it’s newsworthy to begin with.

Several such occasions presented themselves on the Ebola story, particularly regarding “suspected” cases. We decided early on that if we reported every such case where doctors thought someone might have Ebola (there have been more than 300 instances in the United States alone), our wires would be jammed with “is-it-Ebola” stories. Almost every one of these would have to be followed with a “no-it’s-not-Ebola” story later on.

Our news judgment told us we would need something more before rushing to the wire with these reports. Our decision was to report suspicious cases only if they created major disruptions (evacuations of hotels, diversion of airline flights) or otherwise attracted high-level attention.

Otherwise, we would simply monitor the cases, reporting them only if there was a confirmed Ebola diagnosis.

There are cases where the information is on the record, others are running it and readers are eager to see it. But something holds us back: a sense of caution about whether the material is actually right, or whether it’s newsworthy to begin with.

It wasn’t easy. When New York City health authorities issued a press release saying a doctor who had served in West Africa was being tested for Ebola, alerts from cable networks lit up TV screens around our newsroom. We didn’t send a story right away. We advised our subscribers of the situation, but waited until the case was further confirmed and took on more urgency with a news conference by the mayor.

That doesn’t mean we consider Ebola a go-slow story overall. We exclusively obtained thousands of pages of medical documents on Thomas Duncan, the first Ebola victim in the United States. That led to extensive AP stories on how he was treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. And AP writers and photographers had been reporting from West Africa on the spread of Ebola for months before it made headlines in the United States.

We’ve held off on stories in many situations beyond Ebola. Often we feel a need for more confirmation, and our fact-checking efforts can span continents.

When an Air Algerie plane disappeared this summer over Mali, Twitter blew up with claims that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel Castro, was on the plane. The information came from a Facebook post by the airport in Burkina Faso, where the flight originated. It said Castro was on the manifest.

You can imagine that a Facebook post like that — directly from airport authorities — would be enough to satisfy many news outlets. Indeed, major newspapers in Argentina, Spain and the U.K. went with the story online, as did some U.S. outlets. But we held off. We contacted our Havana bureau, which quickly reached a source close to Mariela Castro. The source said she was not on the plane. Another source told AP she was at a conference at a Havana hotel. Newswoman Andrea Rodriguez drove to the hotel and persuaded a press official to crack open a door to the closed event: there was Mariela Castro, very much alive and speaking from a lectern.

In recent weeks we sat on a press release from Thailand’s tourism authority saying the Tour de France, or some stage of it, would be held in Thailand (a competitor agency quoted the release, but it wasn’t true). We double-checked a broadcast report that some of the girls kidnapped in Nigeria had just been released (they hadn’t). We paused to verify a photo from Twitter that purportedly showed an airstrike against the Islamic State group (it turned out to be a recycled image from the Gaza war).

Every few weeks we send our staff a set of “great saves,” recounting examples of how double-checking our stories and images have saved ourselves and our subscribers from serious mistakes. The checking we do takes time. But it’s a value we take very seriously.

Thomas Kent  
 
Nonresidential fellow


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