Nancy Barnes: Being first is important; but being right trumps all

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2010 - 2:53 PM

Star Tribune followed strict policy in tracking down the Emmer story.

Nancy Barnes
Star Tribune Editor and Senior Vice President

Late Tuesday night, word started leaking out that Republican Tom Emmer planned to concede the race for governor on Wednesday. This set off a mad scramble between 9 p.m. and midnight to confirm if it were true so that we could post it on our website.

The pressure to confirm a story of that magnitude is immense in the 24-hour information world where blogs and other websites often will post a rumor. The story was leaking out from a TV reporter who had close ties to Emmer, but our reporting standards dictated that our staffers had to confirm this independently.

It's a dilemma that crops up more and more when dealing with intense competition over political stories, or rumors that Brett Favre is returning or retiring, or that a new University of Minnesota president has been picked.

We want to be out there first, but the standards for confirming information on stories like these are the same for the Web as they are for the newspaper. And they are exacting.

That's because we believe that readers come to us with a different expectation than they bring to a blog. When we print a story, it better be true, not just a rumor.

The Star Tribune's policy for breaking a big story requires that we have the information one of three ways. The first and best source, of course, is directly from Emmer or his campaign, on the record.

Barring that, we have "the golden source" rule. A golden source is someone whose information is considered to be infallible.

For example, if Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton had told us that we could report Emmer was conceding so long as we didn't attribute it to him, then Sutton would be considered a "golden source."

In this instance, the reporters have to share the source with either the editor or managing editor, who must agree that the source is infallible. On Tuesday night, we didn't have a source that fit that criterion.

Without a "golden source," reporters must find two or more independent sources with direct knowledge of the information, and share that information with a top editor who must agree that the sources are credible.

For example, on Tuesday night, our reporters found a well-known Republican who had heard that Emmer planned to concede, but he hadn't heard it directly from the Emmer campaign. That person could not be considered to have direct knowledge.

Around 11, reporters found another prominent Republican with direct knowledge of Emmer's plans, but they were still ringing up people at home to find a second. If we found a second source, we would strip a headline across the homepage and the paper's front page declaring that Emmer would concede the governor's race.

Try as they did, our reporters didn't get the second source Tuesday night and so the headlines and leads on both the website and the next day's newspaper stayed the same.

Instead of declaring this to be an absolute fact, we simply slipped in a secondary headline and sentence that said: "A GOP source with knowledge of Emmer's plans said he would concede ..." It's a subtle but important distinction.

In many ways, this type of adherence to strict rules of sourcing is a bit old-fashioned, but in our view, old-fashioned standards are important in a world where it is increasingly difficult to separate opinion from fact, and fact from fiction.

They are absolutely mandatory if you want to be a trusted source of information.

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