This module addresses these ethical issues:
- How do we ensure accuracy in our reporting?
- When might a news organization report unverified information?
- What about correcting errors?
Accuracy is the overriding value that virtually all journalism organizations agree on. We must strive to report facts accurately or we will lose our credibility. Accuracy is achieved through a combination of commitment, skill, transparency and correction.
Your organization can set a general policy that journalists must report accurate information that they have verified personally. Or you can specify procedures in each of these areas, such as requiring use of an accuracy checklist, requiring staff members to vouch that they have verified the spellings of all names or requiring them to gather and retain contact information for everyone interviewed.
Some organizations employ fact-checkers to verify writers’ stories before publication. Others require reporters to check all facts with sources prior to publication, or require two sources on every fact. (An exception might be made for information that comes from one source of unimpeachable accuracy.) Some organizations might have a general statement on accuracy but provide more detail in the training and coaching of staff or in working with staff members who commit errors.
The key question many reporters fail to ask their sources is, “How do you know that?” Even highly placed officials can jump to conclusions or rely on unverified information from underlings.
When a source tells you how he or she knows, it makes sense to report that along with the information.
Another important point is to evaluate the source in terms of his or her past reliability, and whether he or she is truly in a position to know the information in question. And whenever possible, make audio and video recordings of interviews or events. They serve the dual purpose of ensuring accuracy and providing multimedia material.
Other keys to accuracy, adds Craig Newmark, are:
- Not characterizing an entire group of people on the basis of anecdotal evidence from some members of the group
- Not treating “common wisdom” or unverified reporting by others as fact
- Not allowing time pressures to affect your accuracy standards
- Making sure headlines and links reflect the same concern for accuracy as text
Avoiding quoting or giving air time to people you know aren’t being honest. In the case of important newsmakers (especially politicians), it may be impossible to ignore dishonest quotes, but the quotes should be balanced with accurate information.
Craig Silverman, a specialist in online corrections and founder of the site Emergent.info, advocates that journalists should use checklists to prevent errors, just as pilots and surgeons do. You can use Silverman’s checklist or develop your own. Steve Buttry’s version expands on Silverman’s and was inspired by it.
Journalists and news organizations differ on how much to seek sources’ help in confirming facts in final drafts of stories before publication. This is more difficult to do in the fast publishing pace of digital journalism than it was when newspapers were publishing primarily in a 24-hour cycle.
Most news organizations approve of having reporters read a passage of a story to a source in at least these two cases:
Situations where the reporter is unsure of facts or is trying to resolve conflicting accounts of a situation.
Complex stories where the reporter lacks expertise and wants to ensure accuracy with a final check with an expert source.
However, many news organizations allow reading back material only in those situations, so as to avoid debates with sources about the entire approach of an article. See the section on “Interviews” on this site, and two notes by Steve Buttry:
Sharing stories with sources before publication is risky, but can ensure accuracy
Advance review: To show or not to show
Reporting Unverified Information
Some journalists believe there’s a place for reporting unverified information. This would apply to certain situations:
Crowdsourcing. A journalist may come across information that’s difficult to verify and turn to his audience for help in confirming or denying it. This can be a useful technique, but requires extreme care so as not to spread malicious information or confuse readers as to what’s verified and what isn’t.
Reporting rumors, etc., because “it’s out there” and people will be looking to you to say something about them. There is much debate on this issue. If you confirm that a widely read rumor is untrue, you can provide a public service by shooting it down. But if you have no idea if it’s right or wrong, some news organizations make a point of not touching it. We’re a news organization, they say, not simply a clipping service for what’s buzzing on the Internet.
The “Corrections” section of this site deals with this issue in more detail. We mention it here, though, because your organization should have a policy for correcting archived versions of stories, so they are accurate for new readers and so that your organization does not repeat an error by using inaccurate material from your archives.
The main author of this section is Steve Buttry, Lamar Visiting Scholar at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. It includes material from his blog posts on accuracy tips and using an accuracy checklist.
See also the modules on “Social networks” and “Removing material from your archives.”
How to verify information from tweets: Check it out by Steve Buttry