When asked to identify their main grumbles about their newspapers, U.S. readers identify three main concerns. They say their papers are biased, sensational and often inaccurate. When I’ve spoken to groups about journalism ethics, heads nod in agreement when I mention this list. When I ask, “How many of you have firsthand experience of an inaccuracy in a story that involved you?” typically, about three-fourths of the hands go up.
Accuracy, clearly, is a big deal to readers, and it should be. It’s also a big deal for journalists. From day one in journalism school, and certainly from day one on the job, the paramount importance of accuracy is hammered into reporters’ thinking. As this paper’s managing editor, Gary Graham, notes: “Readers expect us to be accurate; that’s a standard that’s not negotiable.”
Journalists are the first to admit that this standard isn’t always met. The reasons are varied. Most often inaccuracy results from simple human error: misunderstanding a source, writing down a name wrong, getting something wrong in the editing process. Other times, mistakes get into stories because a source gave wrong information in the first place.
But for those newspaper readers whose raised hands I’ve counted, how the error occurred isn’t nearly as important as the fact that it did. A typical reader who was misquoted or whose job title was reported incorrectly probably doesn’t care who made the mistake. He or she will agree with former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship, who said “Readers remember mistakes longer than scoops.”
So what if a story refers inaccurately to you or your organization? You can disregard it or set the record straight. Usually, it’s best to set the record straight. Most importantly, you’re putting into place a factual correction, for both the paper and its readers. A second reason is the value of reader feedback. Any editor knows that reporters make mistakes. But an editor worth his or her salt will watch for frequency and patterns of reporters’ mistakes and respond accordingly.
Sometimes the error may be so minor or inconsequential that it’s hardly worth your effort or the paper’s to set things straight. If you suspect you’d look silly pointing out a trivial correction, then you’re probably right.
Most often, though, it’s worth following up. My last column, for example, dealt with coverage that flowed from some news reporting that was outdated by the time it was published. In hindsight, it would have been best if the organization being reported on had contacted the paper right away and updated the inaccurate information – which was then perpetuated in later coverage.
To bring a factual error to the paper’s attention, call 459-5430. The media are unique in that no other institution proclaims its sins of commission to the public; a factual error is there for everyone to see. Given the potential impact of wrong information, Graham says, the paper is committed to running corrections prominently, usually on the front page of the regional section. That makes sense, as it’s the regional section that carries most of the locally reported news.
Sometimes readers’ unhappiness goes beyond matters of fact. Your concern may be with what you think is bias or sensationalism, or perhaps you think a story is incomplete or significantly misinterprets what took place.
If you think a story has fallen short of good journalistic standards, one option is to contact the reporter directly. Describe your concern and ask him or her why the story appeared as it did. That direct contact may satisfy you. If it doesn’t, Graham encourages you to contact an editor, perhaps the person in charge of the section in which the story appeared. Or you could call Graham himself or Steve Smith, the paper’s editor in chief. If you want an outside view, of someone who doesn’t work for the paper, contact the ombudsman.
Alternatively, you could write a formal letter to the editor. If you’re simply writing to express a concern that you don’t want published, make that clear. Yet another venue for reader concerns is the occasional “Ask the Editor” column, in which various editors respond to issues that readers raise.
Before contacting the paper over coverage that bothers you, it’s helpful to bear in mind the proverb that says, “To judge a thing, one must first know the standard.” In other words, be clear why you think the story falls short of good journalistic standards. A helpful resource here is the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics (on-line at www.spj.org), which spells out what one major journalistic organization sees as the profession’s obligations to the public. Simply being angry that a reporter has written about something you didn’t want covered, which was one reader’s complaint to me recently, doesn’t constitute a valid gripe.
Beyond the factual errors, which are relatively easy to address, complaints about bias and sensationalism are harder to resolve. Typically, these disputes are rooted in opinions and judgments. Each day’s paper is a huge collection of subjective judgments by reporters and editors on what to include, what to omit, and how to present what makes it in. There’s always room for disagreement (among journalists themselves as well as the rest of us) on any day’s set of judgment calls. In other words, while you’re entitled to a respectful hearing if you not happy about a story, don’t expect that the reporter or editor you talk with will necessarily agree with you on how that story should have been handled.
But with accuracy, there’s no doubt about the standard. Neither The Spokesman-Review nor its readers should aim for, or accept, anything less.
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