Accuracy is essential in all journalism

Image courtesy of Roscoe Ellis and released under Creative Commons

Speed and accuracy

A media organisation will be judged on the accuracy and reliability of its journalism, which must be well-sourced, supported by strong evidence, examined and tested, clear and unambiguous. Verified facts must form the basis of all news, not rumour and speculation.

Accuracy is essential if journalism is to inform the public debate. Accuracy comes ahead of speed. If you are not sure, hold fire. Being first and wrong is not a model to aim for. Being right, always reliable and measured is.

We need to be totally transparent in declaring what we know and what we don’t know. Those who trust you will be prepared to wait for your version. In fact they might use your coverage to check whether a hastily prepared item by a competitor has any truth in it.

Caution is particularly needed if the topic is controversial. In such cases, too much haste can cause lasting damage to your news brand. Most major news providers require:

  • first-hand sources
  • double-checking of facts
  • validation of material submitted
  • confirmation via two reliable sources
  • corroboration of any claims or allegations made

It is also important to have your own sources. Don’t just chase those used by others. They may not be reliable. Build your own network of trusted contacts and turn to those.

Contributors

Be cautious about people who are offered up to speak on an issue. They might be being promoted for a reason other than to accurately inform the public debate. You need to take care in order to examine the motives of those offering contributors and those offering to contribute.

Don’t take for granted what you read on a third-party website. It might look professional and sound convincing, but that doesn’t mean it is true.

If you copy material from an online site you are running a great risk, especially if you reproduce it word for word. It is fine to research information and check it out yourself, but you must never take as fact information that is published elsewhere.

Don’t be fooled by images, videos, audio and reproduced documents. Digital manipulation is commonplace.

In the past, an edit in a filmed interview often had to be covered by what is known as a cut-away shot, which took the eye of the viewer away from the point in the interview that was being edited. Now, with digital manipulation, that is no longer necessary. So don't be fooled by what you see and hear in audio/video footage. It may have been altered.

Unless you know the person who created the material, and are absolutely sure they are genuine and honest, remain cautious until you have verified it. Or, if you feel you must refer to it, qualify and qualify again so that your audience is not led to think you are recommending the material as proven fact.

When people turn to you they expect you to deliver facts. You can refer to material gathered elsewhere, but always qualify it by saying that this material is from another source, and state that source. It is also worth adding that you have not been able to verify the information given, if that is the case.

Keeping notes and records

Most reporters, when they start work for the first time, are given a notebook and told to keep it safe and never throw it away. You never know when you may have to refer to your notes as evidence in a legal case.

Accurate note-taking is essential. The usual rule is that notes must not only be accurate, they must also be reliable and contemporaneous. That means that you need to have spoken to reliable sources at the time an incident happened, rather than jot down from memory casual conversations long after the event. The latter is unlikely to stand up in a court of law.

You will also need to keep records of the research you carried out in reaching your conclusions. These should all be contained in your notebook, or, in the case of those using computers, in folders and files.

Always keep a track of all bookmarks and email correspondence relating to your stories. However, where anonymity has been requested or where it is essential, make sure that your records do not identify those you have interviewed.

Protecting sources

You must always make sure that you protect your sources. Great care must be taken when you agree to anonymity and an off-the-record briefing, but once you have agreed to it you must honour it. You need your anonymous source to agree to you using as much information as possible without identifying them, particularly if they are making serious allegations. This is so that the audience is not misled, and can put some value on what they say.

Anonymity also raises some ethical issues about misleading the public. You might agree to any of the following to disguise identity:

  • using a voice-over
  • using blurred images
  • hiding locations
  • avoiding using real names
  • not giving an age range

These are fine as long as you make it clear that you are using such techniques, and state clearly why you are using them. However, sometimes, media organisations have misled the public. You must not use any methods that could be seen as a false representation of the truth.

When agreeing to anonymity, ensure that the person you are interviewing is happy with you sharing their identity with your senior editor. It will be difficult for you to use the material if those who are in charge of the output are not able to make their own judgement as to the authenticity of the person and the information they are offering. It will also help protect you and your sources in the long run.

If you are dealing with an anonymous source who is making serious allegations you will need to decide whether:

  • the story is of significant public interest
  • the source is credible and reliable
  • the source is likely to be in a position to offer accurate information
  • there are any legal issues
  • anyone’s safety could be at risk
  • a response to the allegations can be found.

If you agree to go ahead with the interview, then you need to make clear to the user/audience/reader the conditions under which the material was gathered. You must never mislead the audience.

Reconstruction and archive material

If you can get by without staging a reconstruction, try to do so. Reconstructions can confuse the audience. If you do create a reconstruction it needs to be as accurate as possible.

So, too, can the use of library material. Always make it clear where the material is from, when the event happened and the circumstances surrounding it. Never use library material to represent a current event without labelling it as such. To neglect to do so would be dishonest.

Seasons change, people paint their properties, roads get widened and bypassed, street signs change. Library and archive material doesn’t keep up with such changes.

Misleading the audience

The concern over misleading the audience extends to some everyday journalistic practices that many in the profession consider to be the norm. These include:

  • reverse questions added after the interview ends
  • noddies and two-shots (where the interviewer or the interviewee gives body-language signals in response to answers given)
  • cut-away shots of items used to cover edits
  • set-up shots of the interviewee and interviewer used to lead into the interview
  • overlay shots that show the interviewee at work.

All these can be fairly innocent editing techniques used to make a long and sometimes boring interview more digestible, however they can also be used to mislead. Be careful how you use them, and do so bearing in mind that the methods you use need to stand up to scrutiny.

Third-party material

Always make clear when material has been provided by others. Attribution is essential. Say "according to…" or "it’s being reported by…" and you are covered. 

However, in contentious issues, you will also be judged on who you turn to, so those sources you use need to be balanced and representative of the widest opinion base in order to protect your credibility. Sourcing such information is part of your commitment to accuracy. Who you go to will build on or damage your integrity.

At times you will want to build a report around statistics. Sometimes those statistics are offered to all news outlets via the wires. Even so, it’s worth qualifying. "According to" is useful in these circumstances.

Always state that there is a margin of error, particularly with trends. It is conceivable that businesses, political parties and individuals may make important decisions based on what you say. Qualify your comments so that you are less likely to mislead.

Admitting mistakes

The willingness to admit mistakes is another part of being accurate.

This has become all the more important in the age of online archives, although it has always been the case that mistakes in old newspaper cuttings could be repeated and result in an inaccurate report being circulated again years later.

Your news organisation will have a correction strategy.

Summary

To sum up, your journalism must be:

  • well-sourced
  • supported by strong evidence
  • examined and tested
  • clear and unambiguous

Clarity is as important as accuracy

You might want to read another module about accuracy entitled For journalists, clarity is as important as accuracy.


Accuracy question


Image courtesy of Henning Mühlinghaus and released under Creative Commons

Standing between the evidence and the claims

There has been a strike at a steel works. The union claims all its 100,000 members were out on strike, but the employer says 50% turned up for work and defied the picket lines. You were reporting from the main gates of the steel plant all day and you didn't see anyone crossing the picket line. You witnessed the mass meeting after which all those taking part left walking away from the steel works. You didn't see any action inside the factory grounds. It was clearly at a standstill with nobody but security staff on site. It seems, from what you witnessed, that the company is fabricating the numbers to try to undermine the strike action.. How do you report the situation?  Do you:

a) accept the union's line and say that there was a 100% turn out for the strike
b) accept the company's line and say that 50% were on strike
c) offer both versions, although, from what you witnessed one is wrong
d) offer both versions, admit you can't confirm which is right or wrong and describe what you saw in detail

Correct answer: click here to view  

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs Media Helping Media. He delivers journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide via Media Ideas. He also runs a media mentoring service.

This site has been given permission to use and adapt elements of the BBC's Editorial Guidelines in these short editorial ethics modules. They have been updated to reflect changing international, regional and cultural variations.

Image at the top of this piece courtesy of Roscoe Ellis and released under Creative Commons. Factory image by Henning Mühlinghaus and released under Creative Commons



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