'Devotion to Accuracy' means owning up to mistakes

April 1, 2010

Editor's note: Robert Feder is on spring break until April 7. While he's away, we're running "The Best of Feder." The following post originally appeared on Jan. 20, 2010:

If you've ever been closely involved in a news story -- either as a participant or a witness -- you know what it's like to turn on a newscast that night or pick up a newspaper the next day and see how it's been reported. Unfortunately, there's often something wrong.

It could be as simple as a misspelled (or mispronounced) name or an incorrect address. Or it could be a more significant error of fact, omission of detail or misplacement of emphasis. But one way or another, a reporter's second-hand version of events seldom matches the recollection or perspective of first-hand experience.

When that happens, it makes everything else you read or watch or hear on the news seem a little less credible. It causes you to question all the other stories with which youdon't have any direct connection. That loss of confidence adds to the public's growing mistrust of journalists and their beleaguered profession -- pejoratively lumped together as the "mainstream media."

As the Internet has accelerated the speed at which information (both accurate and inaccurate) can be disseminated to every computer screen and mobile device on the planet, mistakes are compounded exponentially. At the same time, the traditional backstops of editors and fact-checkers have diminished or disappeared due to the dwindling resources of established news organizations. As journalism ethics professor Edward Wasserman‚ noted, there's a lot to be said about "old media values" in today's online news world:

"Take the idea that it's right to post information nobody's really tried to verify. Post what you have, fix it as better information comes to light -- that's the new creed. The notion that some threshold of veracity needs to be met before you publish is some quaint relic, as one news blogger put it, "Journalism 101, not Journalism 2010."

One of my favorite websites is‚ RegretTheError.com (subtitled Mistakes Happen). Since 2004 editor Craig Silverman has been diligently chronicling "media corrections, retractions, apologies, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the press." It holds a mirror up to a profession that ought to cherish accuracy above all else, but too often hates to admit its mistakes.

It may be seem counterintuitive at first, but admitting mistakes is the best thing the media can do to enhance their credibility and improve their standing with the public. But when was the last time you saw a newspaper give the same prominence to a correction that it gave to the original error? And when was the last time you saw a TV newscast own up to a mistake with a clear, straightforward declaration: "We were wrong and here's what we should have reported"? If I ever heard that, I think I'd stand up and cheer.

For more years than I can remember, a standing feature of my column at the Chicago Sun-Times was called "Devotion to Accuracy Department." There were times when it made two or three appearances in the same week, sometimes just to correct a radio station's frequency or reverse a few consonants in a set of call letters. As petty as those infractions may have seemed, I felt I was sending a message to readers that if I cared enough to get the small details right, then they probably could trust me on the big stuff, too. Besides, if I were going to call others out for their missteps, I'd better be willing to expose my own. Don't get me wrong: I was never proud to make a mistake. But correcting it always seemed better to me than trying to cover it up.

I'm sorry to say that's hardly a universal attitude among my colleagues. I've known columnists who'd go to almost any lengths to avoid having to write a correction or clarification, no matter how egregious their mistakes. On the rare occasions they did -- usually because an irate editor or company lawyer practically held a gun to their head -- they'd write it in such a way that most readers had no idea anything was wrong in the first place. That always bothered me.

As I've mentioned here before, anyone who ever attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University quickly came to know and fear the dreaded "Medill F." It was the automatic failure given to a student who made a factual error of any kind on a story. You either became a stickler for detail or you flunked. It was as simple as that. Unfortunately, there's no equivalent to that in real-world newsrooms or among contributors to the blogosphere. (Ironically, the‚ original version of the blog post in which I wrote about the "Medill F" contained an inaccurate date, which was provided by a source at Medill. But that's another story.)

Nobody's perfect. As parents we try to teach our kids to take responsibility for their actions and admit their mistakes. As journalists, we should do no less.

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