'Check the facts, then check again': News24 assistant editor for breaking news on getting the news right

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News24 assistant editor for breaking news Sheldon Morais
News24 assistant editor for breaking news Sheldon Morais

Sheldon Morais has been News24's head of news since 2018. With the launch of the News24 subscription service in 2020, he assumed the role of assistant editor: breaking news. He plays a central role in determining the news agenda and marshals journalists and resources to make sure readers do not miss any important news developments.

Originally from Westbury, Johannesburg, Morais holds a BA degree with majors in politics, journalism and media studies from Rhodes University.

His almost two decades of experience in the media industry stand him in good stead at News24 as he decides what goes on the news diary every day.

We asked Morais eight questions on how he makes sure News24 gets the news first, and gets it right.

Give us a snapshot of a typical day at work for you. How do you determine which stories to cover?

I usually open my eyes around 05:30. I open News24, quickly check my emails, social media and internal communications for important overnight developments. Once I've edited any stories, I start scanning the newspapers and sites. Then I ask myself the following questions: "What are people likely to be talking about today?" and "What are the two or three things the country needs to know and why do they matter?"

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Around 08:00, I start speaking to several editors (news, politics, business) about significant stories on their agenda, discussing what we need to cover these events or topics comprehensively in relation to our team of reporters on duty that day. We also discuss any editorial considerations - sourcing, angles, ethics and more. This ensures we maintain the highest level of integrity of our journalism at all times.

I then compile the daily fast news diary which highlights our biggest stories of the day. These are discussed at our diary meeting and then we're off to the races.

For the rest of the day, it's meetings, talking to fellow editors and journalists, reacting to breaking developments and breaking news and scoops, playing conductor of sorts, facilitating our news coverage for the day.

Then I start planning for tomorrow's planned events, and how we do it all over again.

News24 has consistently been found to be South Africa's most trusted news source. Why do you think that is?

I think it's due to a slavish commitment to the truth, doing what is right, integrity, credibility and excellence of the journalists who work here. We work hard to earn the trust of our readers, and we guard our credibility steadfastly. Internally, we hold each other accountable and to the same standards we hold the subjects of our stories to. I think it's also important that we listen to our readers and society more broadly. This builds empathy and trust.

You are in charge of breaking news. What goes into breaking a story? How do you make sure you get the facts right?

There are two types of breaking news stories: Breaking the news (being the first to break an exclusive development); and reacting to the news breaking (when a development has already happened and we react to it). In both instances, it's vital that you remain calm. Getting it right is paramount, even above getting it first.

Stories can emanate from journalists, sources directly, events the public is talking about, eyewitnesses and statements. It's important to ask the basic questions, and ask for clarity if needs be - this is not the time to assume you know the facts. There is no such thing as a stupid question during breaking news.

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Once you have the basic elements, the most crucial question is: "How do we know this?" Who are our sources, how did they come to know what they are telling us and are they willing to go on the record?

If the information is from an unofficial source (e.g. an eyewitness), we need to seek confirmation from at least one more source (if official and on the record) or several more if need be.

If a journalist is still unsure or have questions, I encourage them to rope in a colleague or two and debate the issue if they have to.

All the while your communication to all involved must be clear and direct. Nothing can get lost in translation or in the madness of the hour.

Then you check the story again (and again if needs be) - facts, names, sequence of events. No detail is too small.

What do you think will be the big news stories of 2021?

Definitely the story of Covid-19. Other big South African stories will be the fight against corruption (state capture, court cases, etc.), the local government elections and the ANC's internal battles.

What do you do in your free time?

I run, read and listen to podcasts. Or I watch series and documentaries.

What do you think sets News24 apart from other news publications, in terms of the culture?

I can't speak much for the work culture in other newsrooms, but what feels special at News24 is the commitment to excellence and to the team. I am constantly amazed at how everyone goes the extra mile for each other and the subjects of our stories. We take what we do seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously. It's an embracing, inclusive culture that looks to draw people in.

How do you cope with the stress of working in the news? It's not only fast-paced and under pressure, but you also deal with tough subject matters every day.

I believe it's important to acknowledge when I feel stressed, anxious or distressed by the pressures of the job or being exposed to really harrowing or sad circumstances. It's OK to feel emotions.

Sharing my thoughts with loved ones, friends and colleagues also helps. Their care and love help to sooth the soul and restore vitality.

Running, playing soccer, just being active in general does wonders. And finally, celebrating life, hard work and victories with a delicious meal and a marvellous bottle of wine.

How do you feel about where we are as a country and the challenges we face in terms of the economy, Covid-19, politics, etc.?

We find ourselves living through a time of uncertainty, anxiety, stress, anger, heartache and hopelessness. There are few beacons of hope and light - but they are there in every slice of life. This year is going to be hard. In fact, the next three to five years may be hard but the pockets of light (e.g. the commitment and sacrifice of our healthcare workers, ordinary people doing amazing things daily) give me hope. We have an indomitable spirit. My only wish is that we're kind to each other and ourselves as we slowly make our way through the challenges.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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