Accuracy in Journalism: Before and After

You might think that this is yet another rant on how technology is putting pressure on journalists to publish more quickly and pushing what’s published out to more people, more easily than ever before.

But two things happened this week that made me think that we can’t do enough to remind journalists that accuracy has never been more challenging to ensure, and never more important.

First, a student journalist at my school reported a story inaccurately.  Not so shocking, you say — after all it was a student , right?

Unfortunately, it was a story on a topic that was of interest to a much more widely read publication than our campus newspaper.  That more widely read publication picked up the story and re-posted it online.  Now, the inaccurate story has gone from a site with a few thousand readers to one with hundreds of thousands of readers.

Who’s at fault?  The student?  The faculty? The student newspaper editor?  The editor of the big-time publication that picked up the story?  Maybe all of the above?

What’s clear is that the systems to ensure accuracy broke down in this case, all along the line.

The second event was more high profile and has been documented  by a former boss of mine, Forrest Carr.  Carr is the news director at KGUN-TV in Tuscon, Ariz.  His station was ground zero for an incident that garnered national attention this week.

On Thursday, a school shooting in Willcox was widely misreported in local, state and national media.  Here is a sample of the various headlines appearing simultaneously on various Tucson, Phoenix, and national radio, TV and newspaper websites around 5:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon, which was more than two hours after the shooting:

1.  “Willcox schools on lockdown following shooting”
2.  “1 student shot, wounded at Willcox High”
3.  “Willcox schools locked down after shooting… no one was injured”
4.  “1 student shot, wounded at Arizona high school”
5.  “Willcox lockdown ends; no student was shot, says superintendent”

And then there is this headline, from a national and well respected news organization’s website.  I’m not totally clear on just when it first appeared but it was still live on the site’s national news page as of 12:30 p.m. Mountain time Friday afternoon, long past the point where most other media had changed their stories to show that although one student had been injured, no one had been shot:

6.  “Ariz. student hit by bullet intended for man at ballgame”

So — Six headlines.  Each mutually conflicting.  Only one can be right.  Which one, and how do you know?

Carr goes on to take readers behind the scenes in a TV newsroom, describing the chaos that occurs in a major breaking news story, but making no excuses for organizations that get it wrong.  He describes what his station does to prevent errors, but notes that no newsroom is infallible.

However, his point about the inaccurate headlines is one that our text, Advancing the Story, has tried to impress upon student journalists since 2008.  Just because the Web allows you to “take down” errors soon after they’re published, that doesn’t absolve a news organization of responsibility for disseminating inaccuracies.

The best news organizations have policies in place on how to correct errors that are published online.  The San Francisco Chronicle/ have one of the most highly regarded.  ESPN has a policy that tries to promote transparency as well.

What about the news outlet you work for?

Of course,  job one is to get it right in the first place. If you don’t, you have to do what you can to make it right for the audience by admitting the error and making an overt correction.