Rarely Regretting the Errors

August 16th, 2007 3:38 PM

Today's Nashville Tennessean newspaper featured a misleading headline: Skipping Sunday School costs jobs at religious publisher. The headline makes it appear that a religious publisher fired employees who skipped Sunday school. The story, though, is much different - declining Sunday school attendance across a certain Christian denomination has led to less business for that denomination's main publisher of Sunday school materials, leading to job cuts.

The headline was accurate but false. I was still feeling tricked by that headline when I happened upon a blog post that lead me to this report from Slate's Jack Shafer about new research indicating that fewer than 2 percent of factually flawed articles are corrected in the nation's daily newspapers.

Shafer writes:

The average newspaper should expand by a factor of 50 the amount of space given to corrections if Scott R. Maier's research is any guide. Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication, describes in a forthcoming research paper his findings that fewer than 2 percent of factually flawed articles are corrected at dailies.
Maier's survey contacted a primary news source named in each of 3,600 stories culled from 10 daily newspapers - Slate lists the papers - and asked the primary source to complete a survey about the accuracy of the piece. A news source was defined as a witness or participant with firsthand knowledge of the events described in the story. Only "hard," objective errors alleged by the news sources were included, and the study assumed that the factual assessments of the news sources were correct.
The results might shock even the most jaded of newspaper readers. About 69 percent of the 3,600 news sources completed the survey, and they spotted 2,615 factual errors in 1,220 stories. That means that about half of the stories for which a survey was completed contained one or more errors. Just 23 of the flawed stories - less than 2 percent - newspaper corrections. No paper corrected more than 4.2 percent of its flawed articles.

Obviously, a newspaper can't publish a correction until it learns of its error. But the studied dailies performed poorly when informed of their goofs. Maier found that 130 of the news sources reported having asked for corrections, but their complaints elicited only four corrections.

A few thoughts.

1. Slate says most of the errors detected were relatively minor, such as an incorrect title or a wrong age or a misspelled name. I recall my journalism professors drilling into us that misspelling a person's name in a news story was potentially even more damaging to a paper's credibility than a major error because readers would find it difficult to trust a newspaper that couldn't even be bothered to spell people's names right.

2. If the news media had found a major American such as, say, auto production or health care, making errors at the same rate that Maier found in the newspaper industry - and correcting almost none of them - it would be howling for a Congressional investigation and new regulations to address the issue.

3. Many newspaper's business sections have done stories over the years on business quality control management tools like W. Edwards Deming's "Total Quality Management." Have any newspapers actually implemented such a program?

The newspaper industry likes to claim it has layers of fact-checking - but the standard newspaper "editorial process" of stories moving from the reporter through a variety of editors before reaching print clearly isn't working well anymore, if it ever did. Perhaps the news media ought to bring in some quality-management expertise from outside the industry and see if they can't modernize and improve the editorial process.

What does this have to do with that headline I mentioned above from today's Tennessean?

The headline is not, technically, false. But it is misleading. It does give the reader an initial impression of the story that isn't accurate. And while the headline writer may have thought it was a clever way to hook readers into the story, what it really does is give readers a sense that they have been tricked - and it tells them to be less trusting of the next headline they read in the same paper.

A few days ago I wrote the following in a long piece at Mesh Media Strategies about journalistic quality control:

If I ran a media outlet, one of its regularly published blogs would be an "Errors and Corrections" blog in which every alleged error brought to my paper's attention by internal or external sources would be aired and examined.

Cute-but-false-impression headlines and correcting only a small percentage of errors in a newspaper aren't the formula for restoring the news media's credibility. Engaging readers and bloggers in publicly spotlighting and correcting every error, large and small would help - especially if it was part of an overall quality management effort designed to reduce errors before they reach the paper's print edition or website.

Not long after I published a version of this essay at BillHobbs.com, a reader sent in the following comment:

There was a story about me in one of our local papers which had some incorrect information. I emailed the reporter and asked them to correct it. The reporter's response was to ask me if it was "really that big a deal".

Every error is a big deal. Reporters who don't think so ought to go find another line of work.