chapter  3
15 Pages

Getting the facts straight in a digital era: journalistic accuracy and trustworthiness

ByColin Porlezza, Stephan Russ-Mohl

No tenet of journalism is as widely accepted as the obligation to report the facts accurately. But from the public’s point of view, journalists fall short of their high-held principles. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center (2009), the public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories is currently at its lowest level in the United States. Just 29 per cent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63 per cent say that news stories are often inaccurate. The public’s scepticism is well founded. Journalism is a fast-paced field and therefore vulnerable to errors. More than 70 years of accuracy research in the United States has documented that error rates have been rising. According to the largest, most recent American accuracy study, nearly half of all stories in US regional newspapers contain at least one factual error as perceived by news sources (Maier, 2005). If subjective errors are counted as well, inaccuracy rises to 61 per cent, an error rate among the highest so far reported. This is an alarming trend that should be of concern for journalists and researchers

worldwide. Committing mistakes without correcting them endangers trust and credibility – which are possibly the most precious assets of professional journalism. When the American Society of Newspapers conducted focus groups and telephone surveys, asking readers about the trustworthiness of their papers (Urban, 1999), it found that the public saw too many errors in the press, and that readers perceived these mistakes quite differently compared to journalists themselves. The report concluded: ‘Even seemingly small errors feed public scepticism about a newspaper’s credibility. Each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabelled map erodes public confidence in a newspaper’s ability to get anything right.’ Without credibility and trust, journalism may be considered superfluous by audiences at times when it is needed more than ever to reinforce democracy by providing relevant information to these very audiences, and by serving as a watchdog on the powerful. According to Briggs (2008), journalism is not only

slowly disconnecting with its community but more fundamentally ‘journalism’s brand is broken’. Codes of ethics worldwide stress the importance of getting the facts straight. In the

United States, the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states: ‘Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.’ The International Federation of Journalists has a similar mandate, and the Swiss Press Council (2008) goes one step further, as its guidelines state: ‘The search for the truth is the starting point of every journalistic activity ( … ) Journalists shall correct every article, whose content is proven to be false in whole or in part.’ The Chamber of Professional Journalists in Italy similarly stresses the importance of accuracy and the need to correct errors (Ordine dei Giornalisti, 1993). However, the situation for the newsrooms is getting even more complicated. The

times of one-way communication have definitely come to an end as journalism grows more interactive with Web 2.0. Scott Maier (2009) notes that ‘the corrections system is often flawed in print journalism, but the checks and balances needed to assure accuracy are arguably even more haphazard with the journalism that news organizations display online’. A recent study of 155 US newspapers, carried out by John Russial (2009: 12), confirms the notion that copy editing is clearly no priority for online stories: about 50 per cent of all surveyed newspapers reported that they did not always copy edit their online news stories before they were published on their websites. Some stories are corrected after publication, others are corrected without notification, while some stories simply get ‘scrubbed’ and disappear from the webpage. As Craig Silverman (2007: 234) notes, a clear standard on handling online errors is lacking. Accuracy as a research topic draws attention to what may be the deepest difference

between professional journalism and lay communication, as well as public relations: the commitment to provide accurate, relevant, trustworthy, balanced news. Our study on how Swiss and Italian regional newspapers relate to accuracy compared to their American counterparts reveals that inaccuracy seems to be an almost inherent, though undesirable, aspect of journalism. Journalism research could and should hold a mirror up to those working in newsrooms, while at the same time being transparent about its limits. This is increasingly important since the internet and social networks impose new challenges for accuracy in reporting and correction policies. If journalism wishes to regain its credibility and the trust of its publics – and perhaps also their willingness to pay – accuracy should remain on its agendas.