Saturday, June 06, 2009

On Accurate Reporting

and correction policies, what to expect, and where should your trust lie?

A commentary

I had a discussion with an irritated friend the other day. He was upset about a news report he happened to hear on the radio. This friend felt the news report was a bit misleading and misrepresented. We talked about what a person should do when something like that happens.

Beyond notifying the particular source of incorrect information, I'm not sure there is much the average citizen (or below or above average citizen?) can do to correct mistakes made in the media or at a Web log, for that matter.

Being in the somewhat unique position of having been an outsider looking in, then an insider looking out, to return to being an outsider, oftentimes, looking in, again, I think I have some things that might add to such a discussion. Also, you should recognize, I have no masters degree in journalism, experience, perhaps, but, no educational credentials.

One issue my friend had was that when incorrect information or misleading insinuations are made within a report, people form opinion, potentially, based on incorrect foundations. It is a problem, and if you are like me, you don't subscribe to the "Springfield News-Leader," (and I use them as an example, you could apply this to any news source) then you rely on a link, mostly obscure, which sits under the heading of, simply, "Correction." There is no indication to what issue or error the correction applies, no eye grabbing, intrigue inspiring enticement to cause your curiosity to be aroused to see what the correction of the day happens to be.

Newspaper articles have catchy titles, and are supposed to have catchy leeds, crafted to draw the reader in and hold their attention to the end of the article. Not so with generic "correction" links.

Oftentimes, if one clicks on a correction link at the News-Leader (again, just my example for the purposes of this entry) one will find some trivial mistake has been corrected, such as a misspelled name or the wrong name being placed as a caption under a picture. Nothing exciting and nothing that would inspire one to think it was particularly important to follow corrections at the paper every day. I'm not sure what, if anything, needs to be or, could be done about that.

In Saturday's News-Leader you'll find these corrections, listed under that generic "Correction" link:

"The $68,100 cut by City Council from the budget for the Springfield Human Rights Commission is from the city's general fund. It was incorrectly identified as grant money in a Friday story.


To clarify a Friday story on Shelly Lea Compton: She was charged with possession of a controlled substance."

You'll also find this statement:

"The News-Leader strives for accuracy and fairness. To request a correction, call Robyn Bates at 836-1112."

I don't question whether the News-Leader strives for accuracy and fairness. I'm sure they do, as an organizational policy. [I believe the N-L correction above, about the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights budget being cut by $68,100, needs corrected too. I think that is the total budget and the cut Council is discussing is $67,100] And, I haven't noticed, of late, any particular, notable tendency toward bias in any of their reporting but, as is the case with all news organizations, they depend on individual reporters to get the facts correct and report them fairly for them. And therein lies the proverbial rub. Individual integrity comes into play.

Journalists are not infallible any more than bloggers, though I like to think those who consider themselves professional journalists work a little harder at fact gathering and in the consideration of all sides of an issue than bloggers, as a general rule, unless, of course, they are blogging as a part of their duty for a news organization.

Getting paid to do something and being affiliated or associated with a particular news organization does bring with it an accompanying burden of responsibility, at least it did for me because, at the time I was writing for CFP, I realized my reporting didn't simply have an affect on my own credibility but, also on the paper for which I reported. I think, since I am no longer paid or affiliated through association with the "Community Free Press" that I might be more inclined to slack off a bit. That is a tendency I try to keep in check.

But, there's a second point I felt I wanted to share today.

Yesterday, (Friday) CFP staff reporter Brian Brown left a comment on one of my blog entries. He commented that he thought a certain reporter for the News-Leader "has done a really good job on his CU stories this week," and don't get me wrong, the reporter probably has done "a really good job on his CU stories this week" but, I don't know, for sure, if he has or not, and you don't either unless you have attended all of the meetings pertaining to that issue, and have been privy to conversations held between that reporter and the people he has interviewed and quoted.

Now, it should be noted CFP's Brian Brown knows more about the issue than I do because he has interviewed those involved in the CU/eminent domain issue. Therefore, when Brown compliments the News-Leader reporter's work, it has more credence than if I did, since I've interviewed no one on the issue, personally, though I've kept up on the media reports on the issue.

In the past, I have discovered a little error here, and a little error there, sometimes a more substantial error here, and more substantial error there, in some of the reports I've read in the News-Leader about various issues. The same is true of some of the reports I have seen at local television news stations. But, let's face it, if I had not been present, personally present, at some of the meetings that were being reported upon, I would never have known the reporting was not factually correct in some areas or, that it did not seem to adequately and appropriately reflect both sides of an issue. So, I assume that News-Leader reporter has probably done a good job reporting on the CU/eminent domain issue. For the record, I was in attendance when the Council discussed the issue of CU's potential taking of Becky Spence's land through eminent domain, and at the meeting Spence called at the library on South Campbell, however, I have not spoken to anyone at City Utilities on the matter.

So, I wrote all the above to, really, just to offer these thoughts, in summary:

There are no infallible reporters or journalists, and unless you have attended the meetings which they are reporting upon yourself, you really can't know whether good, accurate, fair reports are being issued. You can "think" they are reporting well on an issue but, you can't really know unless you know the issue for yourself.

I don't think it wise to trust and have faith that journalists and reporters are fairly and accurately bringing you their reports without really knowing whether these fallible journalists and reporters deserve that trust and faith, in other words, individual journalists and reporters are in a position of needing to build that trust.

What's the answer? If you really want to know the facts you need to attend all the meetings surrounding any issue which you believe is important. It is not an easily complied with answer. We all want to have trust and faith in journalists and reporters because it is much easier to do than to take responsibility and find out the facts for ourselves. They get paid to do that, we don't.

Because journalists and reporters are paid to issue reports, and it's their job to attend those meetings, they have the time to attend them, we don't always have the time to attend all the meetings surrounding an issue which we believe is important.

So, what's the other choice? Caution. Simply recognize that journalists and reporters are not infallible and they will sometimes fail you. Recognize that unless you've been to every meeting, you're working from a vantage point of ignorance until you find out the answers for yourself.

This isn't meant to suggest you can't form opinions based on the reporting of journalists or bloggers, sure you can but, recognize you are forming opinions based on second hand information, and in the case of bloggers, sometimes you are even forming your opinions based on the opinions of those who might, also, have formed them based on the same second hand information that you have accessed. Recognize, too, you might get just as valuable information from a non-journalist, who attended the meetings you did not attend, as you do from that paid and credentialed journalist, however, the non-journalist might not be quite so articulate in the telling as a trained reporter. On the other hand, sometimes the non-journalist might be more articulate than a trained reporter...I know some people that qualify in that category, as well.

Never forget, we live in the "Show Me State," not the "Tell Me State," or the "Write Me State."


1 comment:

BBrown said...

Now that you mention it, I'll say I was disappointed in KY3's report after the Spence meeting. It felt like it was written in advance. On the other hand, I thought KOLR 10 did a really good job. And I generally watch KY3.

It's worth mentioning also that the news is much more interesting when you are collecting first hand.

In any interview, or any press conference, the best you can do as a reporter is sum up events and give highlights. There is always a lot of interesting stuff that falls through the cracks.