Journalists operate under an ethic that includes a respect for truth as demonstrated by the accuracy of the information delivered to the public (Sartori 1987). On the basis of that accuracy, it is assumed, public opinion is formed in a democracy. Accuracy is closely related to the journalistic norms of fairness and objectivity and to the credibility of producers of news. The “mirror” metaphor for the journalistic norm of the accurate reflection of facts may be popular among journalists, but every mirror reflects some distortion (Romano 1986; Ettema and Glasser 1998). In news production, deadlines and time constraints can distort accuracy.
Schudson (1978) provides a history of how American journalism came to rely on news based on facts and accurate information in the era of the penny press. Competition among rival newspapers allowed the public to compare news accounts for accuracy in reporting. The competition for a broad audience through advertisers moved American newspapers away from a party press format, in which opinion is supreme, with the dependence of multiple newspapers on wire services also promoting news based on facts and not opinion. By the end of the nineteenth century, editors were very much focused on the who, what, where, when, and how and were concerned with avoiding libel and criticism from rival newspapers. Bennett (1988) explains that the emphasis on commodified news provided a better mass market product. Schudson quotes Theodore Dreiser from the 1890s when he walked in to the city room of the New York World and saw cards on the walls declaring “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy! Who? What? Where? When? How? Facts?”
Accuracy is achieved through professional news-making processes such as fact-checking and the use of multiple sources, and basing news stories on what journalists observe or can document through credible sources, without embellishing or misleading. It is closely related to fairness, and to balance. The omission of pertinent facts, or the misrepresentation of facts, is an unforgivable violation of the journalistic ethic, and journalists can lose their jobs over such transgressions.
In Leo Bogart’s (1979) survey, more than 700 editors of US newspapers, when asked to define the attributes of quality journalism, placed accuracy at the top of their list. Leading publications have taken steps to preserve that value. The New York Times created two new positions in 2003, a public editor to maintain high standards of accuracy and fairness and a standards editor to oversee training programs in accuracy and to develop programs to effectively track accuracy. The current Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct of the Radio-Television News Directors Association states that journalists should present the news accurately, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors Statement of Principles includes an article on truth and accuracy.
Fact-checking is a tool used in newsrooms to catch inaccuracies before they make it into news reports. Students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University learn the lesson of no tolerance for errors when they receive a grade F for any news assignment with even a single inaccuracy. Journalists must check concrete facts such as distance, addresses, phone numbers, people’s titles. Organizations such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Accuracy in Media, and USC’s Factcheck.org are public watchdogs that focus on the accuracy and objectivity of news reports.
Online news media give rise to greater concern about accuracy in news reports because information can be disseminated before it is checked (Anderson and Arant 2001; Puttnam 2003). There is also a whole set of new problems surrounding corrections to online errors because so much is archived without being updated. The question for online news and the 24-hour news channels is which new value should take precedence, being first or being accurate.
- Anderson, Q., & Arant, M. (2001). Newspaper online editors support traditional standards. Newspaper Research Journal, 22, 4.
- Bennett, Lance W. (1988). News: The politics of illusion. New York: Longman.
- Bogart, L. (1979). Editorial ideals, editorial illusions. Journal of Communication, 29(2), 11–21.
- Ettema, J. S., & Glasser, T. L. (1998). Custodians of conscience: Investigative journalism and public virtue. New York: Columbia University Press.
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- Romano, C. (1986). The grisly truth about bare facts. In R. Manoff and M. Schudson (eds.), Reading the news. New York: Pantheon, pp. 38 –78.
- Sartori, G. (1987). The theory of democracy revisited. New Jersey: Chatham House.
- Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the news: A social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.