Accuracy has always been right at the top of the list of journalism values and priorities.
Except when I saw friends lose their jobs (and sometimes, had to deliver that news myself) or had to write about horrible tragedies, the sickest feelings I have had in this business were when I got my facts wrong. It didn’t happen often, but each time, I brutalized myself with second-guessing and figured out how to prevent it from happening again (and committed to ensure it wouldn’t happen again).
I don’t know how accuracy gets more important than that, but it has actually grown in importance. The public has more potential sources of information than ever today. Almost any path you can imagine for media companies to find our way to a prosperous future starts with being a trusted source for information.
For those of us who don’t think paywalls are the future, our visions rest with building a large digital audience and helping businesses connect with that audience in a meaningful way. We won’t assemble (or keep) enough audience to interest business customers if we can’t ensure accuracy. And businesses won’t want to connect with customers through us if we’re not a trusted source of information.
And for those who are hoping people will pay for digital content, the value proposition starts with trust and goes nowhere without trust.
The Times has a longer and prouder history of outstanding journalism than any other organization. And it’s not even close. Conservative politicians and commentators like to paint the Times as the emblem of the so-called “liberal media,” but they also read it religiously and quote its news accounts (or the news accounts of organizations trying to catch up).
Two embarrassing failures this decade damaged the trustworthiness of the Times:
- Jayson Blair got away with one of the most egregious sprees of fabrication and plagiarism in journalism history (a scandal made more embarrassing by the revelation that he had a shameful record of errors and corrections).
- Times reporters, most notably Judith Miller, were played by the Bush administration and Iraqi expatriates during the run-up to the war in Iraq, publishing unreliable accounts about intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction and failing to report the doubts that many within the intelligence community had about those accounts. (Knight Ridder reported on these doubts, proving that good reporters could get that story.)
The botched reporting and editing of the Times coverage of the death of Walter Cronkite is nowhere near as big a deal as either of those scandals. But it raises grave issues the Times (and other media) need to address if they want to remain trusted sources of information.
Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column Sunday recounted sloppiness and low standards that simply cannot be tolerated at a news organization that values trust. (Personal disclosure: Clark rented an office from the American Press Institute when I was there; while we were not close friends, we did go out to lunch at least once and had quite a few collegial chats passing in the hallway or exchanging emails, including congratulations after he got the Times job.) In Sunday’s column, Clark explained how Alessandra Stanley‘s appraisal of Cronkite’s career was published with seven errors. The whole column has you just shaking your head, but these passages stand out most to me:
- Though Stanley started working on the appraisal nearly a month before Cronkite’s death, she “was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.”
- “Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.”
- “For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts.”
Taking them in order:
- Reporters should fact-check before they turn their stories in, not after. Deadlines are no excuse for failure to verify, but they are especially no excuse for failure to verify a non-deadline story. If the deadline story kept Stanley from having time to verify, she should have told editors she didn’t have time to finish it. She could tell them that if Cronkite died that night, a draft that needed fact-checking was available. If you do turn in a story that’s not fact-checked, you label it appropriately and set a reminder to fact-check the next day. “I forgot” is only an excuse in Steve Martin’s comedy routine. It is beyond amazing that most of these errors were made weeks before Cronkite died. (I should note that Stanley takes responsibility for the errors and told Clark, “There are no excuses.”
- If an editor catches an error, and especially if you catch two errors, you discuss the errors with the writer (partly for accountability and education, partly because you don’t want to edit an error into the story; sometimes the editor thinks something is wrong but the editor is actually wrong). That discussion between editor and reporter certainly should have included the question: “Did you fact-check this story?” which would have prompted the reporter to finish that essential step. And when editors make substantive changes in stories, they should ask reporters to read those changes to avoid the situation of creating new errors, which happened in this case.
- I don’t care how good a critic or a reporter someone is, a reporter with a record of inaccuracies doesn’t need a personal copy editor. She needs strong discipline, training, a stern warning and, if the sloppiness continues, a pink slip. Steve Smith, former editor of the Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash., asked in his blog, “at what point does the editor decide that enough is enough?”
Newspapers publish a tremendous number of facts and our error rates are astonishingly low. We correct errors prominently (as the Times did immediately in this case). And for the Times to take the added step of having a Public Editor who holds staff accountable as bluntly as Clark Hoyt did is a step to build and repair trust.
But the most important things you can do to build trust are verification by reporters and tough fact-checking by editors. Sunday’s column says the Times is taking steps to ensure that happens. In today’s media economy, those steps are needed not just to ensure journalistic integrity, but to ensure financial success in turbulent times.
If this can happen at the New York Times, journalists everywhere should use this as a reminder to redouble efforts to achieve and ensure accuracy and verification. To that end, I offer links to the handouts for my workshops for reporters and editors on accuracy and verification and some earlier blog posts I’ve written on the topics.
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- Katie Couric Swipes the NYTimes’ Alessandra Stanley (mediabistro.com)
- Katie Couric Slams NY Times For Error-Filled Walter Cronkite Appraisal (huffingtonpost.com)