Why accuracy is more important than ever

When I was 18, and just starting out in my first full time job as a trainee reporter, a very wise man who worked in the newsroom said to me: “What’s the most important thing for a journalist to remember?”

“The ‘Who, What, Where, When, Why and How’ rule,” I replied, rather smugly if I remember correctly.

“No, try again,” came the reply.

“Er, make sure you know your law?”

“No.”

“Erm, be able to write a story?”

“No, and be glad for that, because if that was it, you wouldn’t be here.”

“Er, shorthand?”

“Don’t be daft. Think about it, come on.”

“Erm, well, er….”

“Accuracy. Everything has to be right all the time. Your facts have to be right, so check everything. Names, ages, addresses. Get the basic facts right or else people will think you’re a t**t.”

I mention this now because if ever there was one piece of journalistic advice which is more important in the multimedia age than it was a decade ago, then it’s this one.

The ability to point out errors and inaccuracies in a very public way is one of the things reporters in 2010 need to be aware of in a way which I, as a trainee reporter in 1998, didn’t. If someone rang and complained that I’d got their name wrong, or their address wrong, then I’d apologise and that, generally, would be the end of the matter. The paper’s reputation with the complainants friends probably went down a bit as they spotted the error, but I wouldn’t hear to see that. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose.

Fast forward back to 2010 and the reader has a multitude of ways of pointing out an error. Sometimes, it can be easy to turn a blind eye – after all, Twitter is regularly full of people who take the mickey out of the regional and local press, with many positively reveling in errors. But in turning a blind eye, or ignoring the criticism made because of error, the opportunity for damage limitation is lost. Be it via a blog, a Tweet or a Facebook status update, the best way to avoid criticism is to double check everything.

And if a complaint is made via social media – and often it will only be a grumble between friends which previously you wouldn’t have seen – then the best thing to do is apologise quickly.

One of the best examples I saw of this was about four years ago on a forum run in Accrington called  AccyWeb. There were various grumblings about things being wrong in the paper, so an enterprising reporter had the idea of becoming a member of the forum and talking about it with those on the forum. The result was that, while people were forthright about any errors, they appreciated the fact the local paper was joining in.

I mention all of this because of something Jason Cobb posted on Twitter today:

“Some inaccuracies in article in @SthLondonPress” & “rather unhelpful comment from Kate Hoey” – I like Viva Vauxhallhttp://bit.ly/daRjmO

The link takes you to  the page of a local residents’ association, which is highlighting the fact it has appeared in the South London Press this week. They’re clearly pleased, but use the post on their site to point out there were some errors in the article, including an incorrect surname.

To them, the appearance in print at all outweighs the error, but it’s a great example of why, regardless of how you’re reporting, getting everything right is more important than ever.


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