The embarrassing volte face that Germany’s Spiegel Online needed to make this week underlines why for news outlets, the race to be first with the news can seriously damage your reputation.

In case you missed it, Spiegel Online was forced to apologize after a splash story incorrectly reported the verdict of a long-running court case regarding the German far right ultranationalist political party NPD.

A court reporter for Spiegel Online was trigger-happy in filing copy – and in their haste, mistakenly reported that the court ruling was to ban the party – when in fact, the verdict was quite the opposite. Although the story was presumably also read by a sub-editor, the error slipped through, probably due to the pressure to break the news. (Spiegel’s apology is here – in German.)

The error underlines the pressure felt by online news publications to be first with the news. In this case, it was a court case, also covered by plenty of other journalists – meaning that any “first” would be exclusive only for minutes at best.

Were those few minutes really worth the Spiegel’s editorial reputation? As its apology says, “Fehler dieser Tragweite entsprechen nicht dem Anspruch, den die Redaktion von SPIEGEL ONLINE an die eigene Arbeit stellt“ – which translates to “errors of this magnitude do not meet the standards we set ourselves at SPIEGEL ONLINE”.

First with the news?
Being first with the news is an honorable journalistic tradition – yet a high-risk strategy, as Spiegel Online knows all too well. Not all news outlets strive for the same, though. An alternative approach is to require independent verification from two or more sources – which places a greater focus on being a trusted, reliable information source than in breaking sensational stories.

When any major story breaks, there is often an initial period of confusion, where conflicting reports abound. As time passes, so the facts become clearer – and more established. It’s in this critical initial period that reputations can be made … or lost. In my days as a news reporter, I wanted the glory of filing an exclusive, and often felt that sub-editors were slowing the process down, when in fact they were playing an essential role in helping me – and my newspaper – to protect our reputations.

This week, Edelman’s Trust Barometer confirms that “trust is in crisis around the world”. In times like these, then if you have a good reputation, all the more reason to hang on to it – whether you’re a global conglomerate, a trusted news outlet, or a PR trying to be elastic with the truth just for the sake of a few short-lived headlines.