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On getting it right …

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I teach journalism, and I have in my newswriting courses a grading policy that my students would call … well, draconian.

If a student — any student of any capability, including the very best — misspells a proper name, I stop reading and assign an automatic “F” to the story. And remember, a proper name is more than just someone’s name. It’s any word with an initial capital letter (uppercase to us literate geeks). That’s product names. Street names. City and towns. States. Get it wrong; get an “F.”

I don’t stop there. If a student — again, any student — commits an error in fact, then each error in fact will result in a third-of-a-letter grade deduction.

So it’s possible for students to misspell and illfactualize (a new word I just made up; it’s a new game you can play at home) themselves into grading oblivion — a minus score.

So why should I subject you, my loyal readers, to this drivel? Because, it seems, I am an about-to-be-extinct dinosaur trying to cope with an evolution in the meaning of such words as “fact,” “accuracy,” “truth” and “credibility.”

Today I read a letter to our readers from Richard M. Smith, chairman and editor-in-chief of Newsweek.

In it he attempts to explain that Newsweek has hardened its policy on the use of anonymous sources in wake of the Guantanamo-Quran fiasco. In the name of “accuracy and public trust,” he writes that Newsweek will never again use the phrase “sources say.” Instead, the newsmagazine will use new guidelines governing the use of anonymice — approval of a top editor, significant backchecking, independent confirmation where possible, revelation of the source’s ax to grind, and so on.

In other words, it’s another version of “we’ll only do it when we’re convinced we’re right.” There’s no sign that anonymous sources will disappear — only that more context will be provided about said sources.

I’m not sure how this new policy affects “fact,” “accuracy” and “truth.” It appears to me that these words have meanings that now fall on a sliding scale. Perhaps organizations such as Newsweek that use anonymice can run disclaimers in such stories: “This story contains facts 85 percent verifiable; overall accuracy score is 79 percent; truth quotient is 72 percent, plus or minus 3 percent.”

The LA Times‘ media critic, David Shaw, chimes in on anonymice in his Media Matters column, saying, “I’m convinced that significantly reducing the number of unnamed sources could go a long way toward restoring the public’s trust in the news media.” That means, to me, when journalists attach names to the facts the sources allege — instead of sources hiding behind the false facade of anonymity — then readers can assess for themselves the level of fact, accuracy and truth.

But little errors corrode fact, accuracy and truth as well.

Shaw notes that The New York Times‘ internal review of its own credibility problems says the newspaper ought to “reduce factual errors.”

Each day, 1,456 daily newspaper organizations produce the equivalent of a book. Day after day. So, they make mistakes. In fact. In the spelling of names. In ages. In identifications of people. In dollar amounts in municipal budget and annual report stories. All kinds of errors, resulting in the 3,200 corrections the Times ran last year, according to Shaw.

It’s the little inaccuracies that compound themselves into loss of reader credibililty — and ultimately to loss of circulation.

Carole Leigh Hutton, the Detroit Free Press‘ publisher and editor who had to deal with the Mitch Albom case, is a Joanie-Come-Lately to the death of a thousand tiny inaccuracies.

According to the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, she told an audience of about 350 people at the National Writers Workshop that she was astonished by the errors she said found in other news organizations’ coverage of the Albom flap.

I’d like to know how many times she’s seen her name in a newspaper with the “e” left off her first name, Carole. More than once, methinks. That realization (sheesh, you’d think top editors would be more aware of the creeping nonfactness in newspapers) and the Albom flap prompted her to institute, according to the Eagle:

• Sending verification letters to people quoted in stories chosen at random after publication to ask how accurate the story was.

• Starting a program to verify and fact-check articles after publication.

• Reworking the ethics policy to further clarify the rules on attribution.

That second one … How about greater emphasis on verifying and fact-checking stories before publication? Isn’t that what the damn copy desk is supposed to do?

Conceiving stories; collecting information; sorting it for fact vs. falsehood; writing stories clearly, accurately and with a certain degree of charm; editing them; verifying them; and making sound judgments about them is billed these days as more complicated, more prone to “soundly guessing” about veracity of anonymous sources that it was back in my old newsroom days.

But it really isn’t. Forgive the cliches, but in the rush to judgments newspapers make because of the perceived competitive pressures of other media (such as newspapers’ own damn web sites), newspapers have forgotten what used to make them credible — getting it right instead of getting it first.

If they want to get it right, then all these post-Albom, post-Newsweek, post-scandal-of-the-week correctives ought to be applied long before publication.

Instead of giving us what-we’re-gonna-do-to-get-it-right speeches, just get it right. Hire more reporters. Give them more time on stories. Hire more copy editors. Give journalists more time and more resources to get it right.

But we know that’s not going to happen. Newspapers’ editorial staffs these days shrink, not grow. The number of working print journalists has declined since 2001. Instead of attacking circulation woes by producing better journalism (meaning more editions where getting it right is the mission), newspaper owners launch marketing campaigns to address the decline in readership.

So I’m still flunking students for getting it wrong. I hope the sour taste of getting it wrong protects them in their professional lives where the consequences should be far higher.

I don’t expect the current level of journalistic semifactness to rise any time soon. Too few horses are pulling too many wagons.

As my good friend and colleague Pat Vecchio has said: “How do you expect to do the big stuff if you can’t or won’t do the little stuff?”

That’s the problem. If Newsweek and other news organizations aren’t accustomed to attending closely to the little stuff, how can we believe them on the big stuff?


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 23, 2005 at 3:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. $$$
    Ah yes, a money problem masquerading as an ethical/professional one. As you say, spend more money, hire more reporters and editors, which is what you HAVE to do to get it right. In doing so we find ourselves faced with an ROI dilemma (that’s “Return On Investment” for you non-bizzies out there).
    It goes like this. I own a string of papers. These are businesses from which I extract profit. Let’s be conservative and say that I’m taking 30% clean each year. Cool.
    I can do this because I have trimmed staff and pay the ones that are left slave wages. However, this leads to the problem you describe – running too lean leads directly to a product that is, among other things, prone to factual errors.
    So how is this an ROI issue? Well, factual lapses erode credibility. Eroding cred leads to lower circulation numbers. Lower circ means declining ad revenues. Which means I take a hit on my 30%.
    So what do I do? Well, if I’m your average persistently vegetative news CEO, I initiate another round of firings, taking enough cost out of the op so that my profit creeps back up to 30%.
    And in doing so, I lock myself even further into the death spiral. I guarantee more errors, more erosion of cred, etc., all leading to further staffing cuts, and the cycle starts all over again.
    If I only had a brain, and maybe a sense that I needed to INNOVATE my way out of the death spiral, I might respond with a longer view that says let’s take a 5% hit on the profit margin for five years, get our operation back up to par, and see what effect this has on the credibility/circulation cycle. And since I’m hiring all these wanks to market me out of the hole I’ve dug, what if I give them a real competitive differentiator to work with – we’re a BETTER news organization!
    My certainty that I could help news agencies solve some of these problems is exceeded only by my certainty that they’d never let me within a mile of their offices….


    May 23, 2005 at 8:45 pm

  2. For what it’s worth (approx. $.46) I’ve got to wonder if this dilemma will just lead to ultra safe “journalism.” I also have to wonder if in “lullabypit”‘s comment if he should have used a colon when saying “It goes like this.” But that’s not my point.
    Frankly, and I’m just throwing this out there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see journalism become a niche interest. The real situation is that newspapers are going to continue to make themselves available online, which is going to, most likely, eliminate the Rockwell scenes of grandma and grampa sitting on the front porch, lemonade in hand, reading the evening news. Although, lemonade is overrated, so maybe this is a step in the right direction.
    Plus, I get the feeling (and again let me remind you I know very little about business politics/running a newspaper/ass-kissing stockholders) that the dwindling newspaper interest (that’s right, I went there) has become almost an accepted fate. It really has. With exception to the old school, hardcore newsroom renegades of journalistic tradition, I feel that it’s only a matter of time before we’re (can I say “we”? I can say “we,” right?) out of jobs. Because, match/set/point, no matter how much effort and refined passion we put into a publication, we’ll never have the power of the business owners – the detached business owners, if we’re honest – that have the ability to point at us and say “you are the weakest link, goodbye.” As as much as I hate 1999 popculture references, and even more so old English b*tch*s, that’s simply the reality of the situation.
    I’d like to think that if I weren’t captivated by blinking pop-up ads, this would have been more concise, perhaps even well-written. Oh, me and my empty promises. Yeah… I won’t be proofreading either.
    I’m remembering a piece of wisdom that seems eerily appropriate here: “So what about your damn jobs?” And let me just add this, if Carly Fiorina doesn’t have the answer, who does?
    And maybe this is because I’ve grown up on the internet, and maybe this is because I haven’t been able to see and fully appreciate the entire loop of failure that journalism (“j-lism,” as I like to call it) has endured over the past few years, but something about this seems fitting for today’s climate. I mean, I’m not totally surprised by where journalism is going. Not at all. And this might be a sign of two things:
    1. Maybe this is a sign my heart isn’t in the right place, but I can’t convince myself that I’m wrong about reader loyalty and that the newspaper, in the traditional sense, is going to survive past my generation.
    2. Calling it “j-lism” is probably what’s tarnishing the profession.
    Another fact people are ignoring is that I don’t think fact-checking has a lot to do with where the business is going. Maybe it’s because I’m loyal to a fault, but I’m not all that shaken by all the scandals recently (well, I’m not lending a supportive hand to Blair, but hopefully you get where I’m going with that) and they haven’t made me disregard journalists or discount Dan Rather’s career. Although, him giving the commencement address at Daemen college did. I’ll admit that. People don’t actually care, I don’t think, they’re just willing to justify the downfall with the one excuse the media has given them.
    With all the media coverage of the supposed shortcomings, people are just telling themselves “hey, we don’t need to read” – EVEN OUTSIDE OF THE SOUTH. They’ve never read, but when people in Vermont take notice, and they’re pretty open to change, then we need to start worrying. People feel like every news story is a load of crap, so why even bother reading when we can turn on CNN and listen to Bill ‘O Reilly give it to us straight. Let me add this: Nothing about Bill ‘O Reilly is straight. But to stay on topic, nothing about him is credible either.
    I’ll end with this: I don’t think fact mistakes are holding journalists back. I think fat America doesn’t want to read, and if they do, they don’t want to pay for it.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, Ann Coulter is on TV and I feel indebted to critique her viewpoints and/or make remarks about her incredibly appallingly choice of attire.
    SO tastefully appalling.


    May 24, 2005 at 5:03 am

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