February 11, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 5: Accuracy in Reporting

The sad news contained in the fourth chapter of Philip Meyer's new book, of "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," is not that newspapers are error prone - that's been acknowledged for some time - but that sources of news stories believe the most common reason for mistakes is that reporters don't understand the subject they are reporting on.

Meyer surveyed people quotes as sources in news stories in 20 communities to determine the accuracy of the newspapers in those cities, the affect of errors on the newspapers' credibility and which type of mistakes sources considered the most serious. Meyers also asked the sources why they thought errors happen. The answer (all emphasis is mine):

"The top reason given by sources, when asked to judge why the reporter made a mistake, was simply that the reporter didn't understand what he or she was writing about."

Here are the top seven reasons for errors and the percentages of sources who named them:

1. Reporters didn't fully understand the story - 29%.
2. Pressure to get the story done on time - 23%.
3. Not enough research - 16%.
4. Events surrounding the story were very confusing - 15%.
5. Laziness on the part of the news staff - 12%.
6. Reporter didn't ask enough questions - 12%.
7. Reporter didn't ask the right questions - 12%.
Aside from the perception by some sources of outright sloth and the recognition of deadline pressures that compel reporters to cut interviews short whether they've "got" the story or not, all these reasons can huddle under the umbrella of lack of knowledge. On some subjects that are the grist of every-day journalism, like financial reporting, analyzing government budgets, and deciphering emerging technologies, reporters don't even know what they don't know. They can ask questions and put the answers in the paper, but the transfer of fact from source to reporter to reader appears without context, resulting in a misinformed reader and a source who believes the reporter is too dumb to distill complexity.

Reporters are not stupid, but they are under-educated. It is the newspaper industry's great disgrace that it fails to provide, or even acknowledge the need for, ongoing education for its journalists. The industry spends only a third of the national average on professional development for its employees. The result: A workforce of generalists, an increasing number of whom hold master's degrees, but most of whom have little direct non-journalism experience, and therefore posesss only a cursory understanding of the fields on which they report.

There are exceptions, or course - reporters who hold degrees in medicine or law or engineering - but they can be found for the most part only on larger papers. The bulk of the nation's newsrooms are filled with in-the-trench reporters who are poorly equipped to deal with sources on a peer-to-peer level.

Take math, for example. The inability of many reporters (and their editors, who spawned from the ranks of reporting) to do math is so legendary that journalism training organizations offer routine math tests and tutoring (like this one by IRE) to bring reporters' calculating skills up to the level required of high-school graduates.

Errors flow from misunderstanding. That's something that can be corrected.

Newspapers have been concerned about accuracy and its connection to readership for several decades. (Here's ASNE's benchmark accuracy study from 1999.) What Meyer has done is borrow some of the questions of the earlier work, build on them to conduct the 20 market survey and find a way to connect accuracy to credibility. (Remember his thesis: Good journalism = credibility = readership = influence = profit.

In his study, Meyer puts errors in three categories: Objective (misspelled name), Subjective (out of context, exaggerated, sensationalized), Math (percentages, etc.)

Of the more than 5, 100 stories Meyer examined, 21 percent had an objective error, 18 percent a math error and 53 percent a subjective error. Interestingly, the sources for these stories were more likely to forgive a subjective error, thinking that the reporter was either too dimwitted or too biased to get it right, than a math error. After all, math is factual, and if you can't get the facts right than how can you get the context right?

(The idea that some errors are more important than others and should therefore be treated differently when corrections are made is just beginning to catch on among newspapers. The New York Times, for example, prodded by public editor Daniel Okrent, recently divided its mistakes into two categories: For the Record (objective errors) and Corrections (subjective errors, Jayson Blair, etc.)

Does accuracy affect credibility and therefore readership? Yes, Meyer says. The newspapers with the highest accuracy ratings were generally held to be the most credible both by their news sources and their readers, and these papers also the highest rates of circulation penetration in their core markets.

What interested me about Meyer's finding was not so much the connection between accuracy and credibility, but his conclusion on how that perception of credibility is spread through a community: By the sources themselves.

Since the sources of most news stories tend to be the elites in the community - newspapers report on the powerful, not the powerless - they also tend to be the opinion leaders as well as the most critical readers of newspapers. Meyer continues:

" sources are pretty good judges of a newspaper's quality. And why shouldn't they be? Their names are in the paper, and they will naturally give it a closer reader and a more careful judgment than the average reader can or wants to manage. Moreover, many, if not most, news sources are opinion leaders. They form attitudes toward the paper based on how its writers handle matters on which the sources are informed. You can bet that they don't keep those opinions to themselves."

In my previous post [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 4: Credibility and Influence] I mentioned that Meyer bases his thinking on many studies done or concepts developed before the arise of the Internet. This is natural given his lifetime of research on newspapers. It does, though, leave some gaps in his logic chain.

Referring to how sources influence community perception of a newspaper, Meyer quotes a study done in 1940 which posits that ideas flow from media "to the opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population."

That's not the case any longer. While the news media do continue to push ideas downward into the community, the community now has the ability - through liberating advances in technology - to push back. The one-directional flow of ideas Meyer cites is gone. It is now a continuous loop.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 11, 2005 07:59 AM

Tim, I appreciate the close read. Up to now, I haven't found much to quarrel with in your good comments. But here's a defense of the current relevance of Lazarsfeld's two-step flow idea.

There was never, even in the early days of printing, a one-directional flow of ideas. John Milton was relying on feedback loops when he argued in Areopagitica that truth and falsehood need to grapple, and truth, being the stronger, will prevail. Blogging steps up the velocity of the feedback, but the loop was always there. V. O. Key, who died before computers started to affect political communication, wrote about "the echo chamber" created by media and public opinion.

Today, bloggers are a new kind of elite. Even if everyone becomes a blogger, the most interesting and trustworthy will rise to the top of a natural hierarchy. We might have to revise the two-step-flow model to account for blogging, maybe introduce another half step or two, but we'll still need it to account for the uneven distribution of knowledge. "Blogs and the Two-Step Flow" would make a fine dissertation topic for someone in the incoming generation of media scholars.

Posted by: Phil Meyer on February 13, 2005 09:48 AM
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