Just the facts: tips on identifying and fixing errors

Sure, we all “regret the error,” but how interested are we  in rooting out inaccuracies from the stories we write each day and in preventing future mistakes? Jonathan Stray, journalist and computer guy, has written a comprehensive post on his blog about accuracy and error reporting in journalism, and he offers some interesting solutions to reverse the trend towards less-accurate news that several studies have identified.

A recent survey found factual errors — i.e. not subjective errors or omissions, but concerning hard facts — in 59 per cent of 4,800 stories across 14 metro newspapers. Currently, only a small fraction of those errors receive corrections.  Compared to studies that began in the mid-20th century, the rate of errors has been increasing (the first study Stray cites, from 1936, found errors in 46 per cent of stories).

So, what can news organizations do to improve their accuracy? Stray suggests:

  • Continuous error sampling: If a newsroom that produces 1,000 stories per month were to “spot check” two stories a day, by traditional internal fact-checking methods or having an objective third-party researcher verify the facts, the data would become statitistically signficant over time in demonstrating an error rate. Stray suggests, perhaps naively, that news outlets could display a graph of these results in the publication, so readers can check their progress. [“Perhaps naively,” because if an error rate of +60 per cent is commonplace, it seems unlikely any news organization would want to admit to that number, even as a starting point.]
  • Improving the corrections process: Identifying errors is only half the problem. What’s done to address those errors is just as important, says Stray. He sees a lot of potential in online correction-submission forms. But beyond just reporting errors, Stray envisions readers also helping editors “filter” the submitted corrections, by rating their severity and pushing some to the front of the queue.
  • Charting your progress: A combination of these two processes — identifying more errors and correcting more errors —  is the only way newsrooms can truly improve the accuracy of their stories. Stray envisions charting the results and sharing them internally, to identify which desks in the newsroom are excelling and which are falling behind. If standardized and made public [again, not likely], the data could  help readers choose which outlets to rely on for accurate reporting.

But what can individual journalists do to improve the accuracy in their stories? One way to start: adopt an accuracy checklist, such as this one by Steve Buttry, to keep accuracy top-of-mind when conducting interviews and other research.

With the growing emphasis on speed in reporting, especially online where being the first is sometimes equated with “winning,” Stray’s examination of errors and corrections in journalism is a healthy reminder that accuracy is now, and should continue to be, the core value of the profession. It may just be a matter of dedicating some resources to fact-checking — as well as checking our egos about being wrong sometimes — to ensure that value is preserved.

Thanks to Craig Silverman for tipping us off to Stray’s study on Twitter.

Posted on April 21, 2011 at 9:59 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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