Pitfalls of bad practice


When a journalist gets the basis of a brilliant story, the urge to rush it out is can be too much to resist. With new technology such as the Internet, it becomes even more important, and more possible, to put a story straight into circulation. Unfortunately, if the story doesn't fully check out, the consequences are pretty drastic. People can sue for vast sums of money, enough even to bankrupt a publication.

In a notorious climbdown last July, CNN, the TV news network, had to retract its claim that American special forces killed defectors with nerve gas during the Vietnam war. The Pentagon said there was no evidence to support the report, which it turned out was based on the evidence of an admiral who subsequently explained he had no direct knowledge of the practice, he'd only heard talk of it. Further investigation might just redeem the story, but for now it's a big embarrassment to CNN.

Stories also have to be investigated with some degree of integrity. A year ago, the US television network ABC was successfully sued for £3.5 million by a supermarket chain which claimed ABC reporters had infiltrated the chain under false pretences. The supermarket sued for fraud, trespass and deceptive trade practices. Although it is widely considered to be unethical, sources are sometimes offered payment in return for vital information on a story. During the trial in Britain of Michael Stone, convicted last October of murdering Lin and Megan Russell, the family of a key witness was paid £5,000 by the Sun newspaper for articles about Stone. There are already guidelines by the British Press Complaints Commission which oppose payments to witnesses. The British government may go further and actually legislate for a ban on payments to witnesses in court cases.