Bias and inaccuracies are among the oldest and most common complaints the public makes about the work of journalists. But far too often journalists and their editors seem unwilling to do anything about it.
The question is not whether unfairness and errors persist in the news media. Glaringly, they do. But how should the media eradicate them, so that biased reporting will not continue to taint the good name of the fourth estate of the realm?
In this respect, the media cannot ignore the recent speech by outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in which he accused the media of abandoning their ethics of impartial reporting and accuracy. He said as a result, [“public] trust in journalists is not much above that in politicians.”
Also fresh in the minds of the public are the various scandals that rocked the media in the past few years. Public concern about credibility of the media arising from the scandals of Jayson Blair’s plagiarism at the New York Times and Jack Kelly’s fabrications at USA Today, among others, were indeed wake-up calls for journalists to address more seriously the issues of accuracy and bias.
A flurry of activities followed those scandals. The New York Times hired a public editor to receive and work on the complaints of its readers. The Ft. Worth Star-Telegraph introduced a new system of fact-checking aimed at protecting the paper from plagiarism and fictitious stories. Both the print and broadcast media became more conscious of the readers’ concerns and complaints. Many newspapers, which until then had no dedicated “Errors and Corrections” columns, created them. Some broadcast media created even online “Corrections and Clarification” columns on their websites.
What really are the causes of errors in the news media? Errors can arise from a reporter’s incompetence or inadequate knowledge of a subject matter. A reporter’s impatience, inability or unwillingness to get the views of all sides in a given matter can be the cause of an error. With some measure of diligence and determination reporters can eliminate these lapses.
Sometimes, poor editing can create an error in a reporter’s story. The unwillingness of a government official or corporate leader to speak to a reporter about an issue can result in unfairness and imbalance in a story. Dependence on a secondary source of information without verification can result in publishing an erroneous piece of information that can be repeated by others who rely on it. All this can be avoided.
When a reporter finds that he has made a mistake, it is his place to tell his boss what has happened. Not all reporters are honest enough to take this step. There is a tendency on the part of some reporters to ignore it or even pretend as if nothing had happened. Some reporters hide the errors from their editors. This shouldn’t be.
There are editors who take mistakes reported to them quite seriously, and initiate immediate action. Some other editors are said to be in the habit of sweeping such errors under the carpet. The right thing to do is for a reporter to inform his editor immediately whenever he finds an error in his article. The editor, who, in such a case, obviously missed the error himself or decided to leave it in, owes a duty to his conscience and a social responsibility to publish a correction or clarification immediately.
Besides the errors, the even more insidious problem is that of bias. Some is unconscious bias, but much of it is just plain advocacy journalism disguised as straight reporting. Accuracy in Media, the original media watchdog organization, has been documenting both the errors and the bias in the mainstream media for close to 40 years.
Are there possible remedies to the afore-stated problems? Certainly there are! If reporters and editors allow honesty and integrity to regulate their professional conduct, a better part of the problem would be solved. Although reporters are not always pleased with the idea of having news researchers call their sources to verify the accuracy of their stories, it is worth the cost to have fact-checkers in our newsrooms.
This is the way to earn and keep the trust of readers and the general public. To do otherwise would amount to eroding this trust. If the many journalistic scandals have helped to raise the levels of consciousness and responsibility of editors and news directors to the interests of their readers and listeners, then the right lessons have been learned. But far too often, it seems that these lessons have not been learned.