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Panpa Bulletin : April 2006
24 | PaNPa bUlletiN april 2006 MeDia MatterS MarK PearSon if there is a single most im- portant factor to distinguish newspapers from other, new- er, media forms it is accuracy. Ac- curacy -- and its associated quali- ties of verification and attribution - should be more important than ever as the backbone of editorial content, bringing with it a level of journalistic credibility consumers will seek out. Editor-in-Chief of The Austral- ian, Chris Mitchell, said as much in an interview on Radio Nation- al's Media Report. He said credi- bility was the secret to the success of newspaper institutions like the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. "They're not just newspapers, they're large news brands, and their reputation for accuracy and newsbreaking is what drives peo- ple to them whether it be on ca- ble, through satellite, in paper, or on the internet," Mitchell said. A panel at the Associated Press Managing Editors annual confer- ence agreed newspapers needed to capitalise on their credibility in the age of blogs and iPods. Un- like the newcomers, newspapers could trade on their historical, ingrained traditions of accuracy, fairness, credibility and inde- pendence, the panellists agreed. Which makes all the more dis- turbing the results of research into newspaper accuracy published in a recent issue of the Newspaper Research Journal. Donica Mensing and Merlyn Oliver from the University of Ne- vada set out to determine wheth- er editors of 113 smaller US dailies (circulations lower than 25,000) thought accuracy was a serious problem and, if so, what should be done about it. Two thirds be- lieved accuracy was a 'somewhat serious' or 'very serious' problem at their own newspapers. When it came to the newspaper industry as a whole, they were even more concerned: 80 percent thought in- accuracies in newspapers overall were somewhat or very serious. Just over half felt inaccuracies had not increased over time, but more than two thirds thought er- rors were a bigger problem for the industry than they were previ- ously. Editors lay the majority of the blame for inaccuracies with reporters who either failed to veri- fy information independently, left out information relevant to the story, or misrepresented a source. Other problems were edi- tors failing to check for holes in stories, failing to insist standard newsgathering techniques were followed, and neglecting to check enough sources had been used. Interestingly, these are the very practices newspapers use to distinguish themselves from less credible new technologies like blogging. That might explain why more than half of the respond- ents felt recent errors at their own newspaper had damaged its cred- ibility. How did editors try to reduce their newspapers' error rate? By issuing guidelines on verifica- tion, developing story checklists for reporters and editors, and by building accuracy and verifica- tion methods into their in-house training programs. Other research shows errors of some type happen in about half of all news stories, and the rate seems to be increasing. We can guess at the reasons for this, but one theory is that journalists' in- creasing reliance on the Internet in their reporting leads to them regurgitating errors they have downloaded. Better training in assessing the crediblity of online sources would help here. The American Society of News- paper Editors launched its News- paper Credibility Project in 1997. One of the outcomes was an excel- lent newspaper credibility hand- book it launched in 2002. It is still available online at http://www. asne.org/index.cfm?id=3886 and well worth a look. It suggests a number of practi- cal steps editors and journalists can take to heighten their cred- ibility in the eyes of their readers and the broader public. It lists three crucial ingredients to regaining credibility: >Improving journalism. "Much public dissatisfaction results from journalism's failure to live up to public expectations --- and to the newspaper profession's own stat- ed standards --- whether it's for accuracy, avoiding sensational- ism, restricting use of anonymous sources or a commitment to fair- ness," it says. >Doing a better job of showing the public that you are trying to make decisions that reflect jour- nalism's core values and to give weight in their journalistic delib- eration to ideas and challenging questions from the public. >Better defining your place in a confusing and rapidly changing media universe, a process that will require creativity to avoid sacrific- ing core journalistic goals. The handbook relates the com- pelling story of Bill Bowen, educa- tion reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who was wrong "by only four letters". He reported a school board meeting the next night would be held at Parkview Elementary School, but the meeting was ac- tually going to be at Park Glen Elementary School. His newspa- per could publish a correction the following day, but that would be too late for those who went to the meeting. So that night Bowen drove to the wrongly listed venue to apologise to the 10 people who showed up and directed them to the correct address for the meet- ing.The handbook suggests four key strategies for improving fac- tual accuracy at a newspaper: >Correcting early and often. It suggests editors label corrections, explanations and apologies very clearly and feature them prompt- ly and prominently. >Inviting readers to call. It asks newspapers to show they are seri- ous about accuracy by dedicating a person to fielding complaints and following through with de- monstrable responses. >Focusing on improvement. It suggests newspapers address each error by implementing strat- egies to avoid such errors in fu- ture. >Identifying patterns. It rec- ommends training programs to develop protocols to avoid sys- temic problems which create re- curring mistakes. Mark Pearson is the Head of Journalism at Bond University. New call for accuracy These are the very practices newspapers use to distinguish themselves from less credible new technologies like blogging. That might explain why more than half of the respondents felt recent errors at their own newspaper had damaged its credibility If there’s one thing newspapers have on their side it’s their reputation for accuracy. Or do they? Mark Pearson looks at the issue of accuracy