Unexpectedly Intriguing!
November 26, 2007

How do you know what you read, see or hear in the news media is trustworthy information upon which you can make real world decisions affecting your life?

Let's begin taking on this question by first looking at just what it is that journalists are supposed to do. Robert Niles, a Pasadena, California-based journalist and website editor, defined what journalism is and who journalists are in an article he prepared for a local elementary school:

Journalism is a form of writing that tells people about things that really happened, but that they might not have known about already.

People who write journalism are called "journalists." They might work at newspapers, magazines, websites or for TV or radio stations.

From here, Niles describes the key elements of how journalists go about their jobs (emphasis ours):

How do you get the facts for your news story? By reporting!

There are three main ways to gather information for a news story or opinion piece:

  • Interviews: Talking with people who know something about the story you are reporting.
  • Observation: Watching and listening where news is taking place.
  • Documents: Reading stories, reports, public records and other printed material.

The people or documents you use when reporting a story are called your "sources." In your story, you always tell your readers what sources you've used. So you must remember to get the exact spelling of all your sources' names. You want everything in your story to be accurate, including the names of the sources you quote.

And there it is, spelled out for elementary school students. Accuracy is the overriding requirement of journalism. The reason why is not hard to understand. As it has been practically defined, accuracy is the degree to which data or information correctly reflects the real world object or event being described.

If a journalist, when reporting upon an event, fails to accurately describe that event and the circumstances around it, they are providing a false picture of that event to their audience.

Often, that may not be a big deal. There can, for example, be an enormous amount of activity going on around an event that can be exceptionally difficult to describe with complete accuracy. In that case, a journalist can simply describe the event as accurately as they are able and they will not risk losing credibility with their audience. The audience has realistic expectations and doesn't expect perfection.

But what if a journalist or news gathering organization knows that they are providing a false picture of an event to their audience? Or what if a journalist's reporting continually contains inaccurate information?

What happens is that they lose their credibility. Consider Dan Rather, the New Republic, and CNN to name just three whose credibility has suffered as they failed to accurately report major aspects of important stories.

What's more, when they lose their credibility by failing to accurately report important aspects of major stories, they also go on to lose their audience or business prospects. Dan Rather lost his job as the anchor of CBS' evening news, which has since seen its television ratings slide. The New Republic's advertisers are threatening to yank their ads as the magazine stonewalls over its demonstrated false reporting of the war in Iraq. Meanwhile, CNN has only recently begun to slow or reverse its credibility-driven television ratings slide that came as a consequence of its trading accuracy for access in pre-war Iraq.

Remarkably, losing their audience hasn't seemed to alert the individuals who run all these organizations that they need to take corrective action to regain their credibility. Instead, they have seemed content to dwindle away as if their lack of commitment to accurately reporting events were a cancer that could not be cured. How else to explain Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS? Or CNN's "staging" of the November 2007 Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Debate in Las Vegas?

It doesn't have to be this way. This is a cancer that can be cured.

So how can journalists regain their credibility? Let's turn back to Robert Niles' lessons for elementary school students:

Here are the keys to writing good journalism:

  • Get the facts. All the facts you can.
  • Tell your readers where you got every bit of information you put in your story.
  • Be honest about what you do not know.
  • Don't try to write fancy. Keep it clear.

If it can be explained so simply to elementary school students, how come grown up journalists, editors, publishers and managers can't do it?

Previously on Political Calculations

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