A Question of Ethics: How long do you give a source to respond?

Aly Colón is the Knight Professor of Media Ethics in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University

Bloomberg News recently retracted a story accusing some Fox News executives and hosts of failing to hand over documents in a lawsuit.

In seeking comment regarding the story, Bloomberg News gave Fox News 18 minutes to respond before publication, according to a Fox News spokesperson quoted by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple.

Journalists seek to publish stories as quickly as they can when they perceive them to be important and timely. We do so for many reasons. Sometimes, news organizations believe the sooner the public knows, the better. For many journalists, it also feels great to beat the competition. 

But speed also results in danger.

Moving too quickly may make it harder to ensure you got the facts straight. Also, the source you seek for confirmation may need more time to get their facts right. Sometimes, the source might hope to delay making the news public until they are prepared to respond or have a better response.

In thinking how fast we decide to publish, we might consider the interstate highway speed limits.

When driving through Utah, or Wyoming, for example, the wide, open view of landscape seems to extend forever. Freeway speed limits: 80 mph. In New York, speed tops out at 65 mph. Higher speeds are set when everything is clearly in view. Slower speeds occur when more caution is needed and danger increases.

So, what ethical questions might we consider when determining how much time we allow a source to respond:

  • Why are we seeking a response from those we are reporting on? 
  • Are we checking a box or is our journalistic purpose to seek new information that could influence the story’s direction?
  • Are we seeking a response to confirm, deny, explain, or add depth to the story?
  • Based on our purpose, what is a reasonable amount of time to give the source to respond? How do you determine that?
  • What will the response, or lack of one, mean for public understanding about the story’s subject?
  • How important is the speed with which we get the information out to the public?
  • Will the public face danger if we fail to get the information out expeditiously?
  • How long can, or should, we wait? How will the amount of time affect the story’s impact?
  • Do we have enough verification to publish without a response?

What other questions might you ask before deciding how long to give a source to comment? Email me your suggestions.


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