Bleeding the Black Ink

Playing fair in print

Perceptions and realities are often skewed and, as the news industry continues to learn, nothing could be more true when it comes to the relationship between the press and its readers.

Often times what journalists see as important does not rank that high on the priority list of their readers and what readers see as vital are overlooked by the press.

A Freedom Forum study that focused on these perceptions showed that while people believe that the press is an important institution in our democracy, they have basic concerns about journalistic practices that they see as being unfair.

These practices, according to the Freedom Forum, include newspapers get too much wrong too often; they are not factually accurate often enough.

What the public says -- "I couldn't believe they got that wrong" .... "Those two streets don't even intersect. How could two cars collide there?" .... "He's lived here for 40 years and they can't even spell his name right."

Many journalists see spelling and grammatical errors, wrong names, wrong titles, wrong addresses or wrong dates as having little to do with credibility. What they are learning, however, is that the credibility is made or broken based on these details.

Errors can occur in any number of ways -- from the source giving out misinformation, to the reporter taking sloppy notes, to miscommunication between the source and reporter, to a style judgement that can cause the reader to draw the wrong conclusion, to errors in copy editing, to inaccurate or misleading headlines.

The news gathering and reporting process is long and there is plenty of room for errors to occur. But a study at the Chicago Tribune, according to the Freedom Forum, discovered that one-half to two thirds of all errors in a newspaper were preventable. Journalists must realized that readers don't care where in the process an error occurs, they just know that the newspaper got it wrong, which impacts the credibility of that newspaper.

Another chief complaint among readers that goes hand in hand with the previous is that newspapers are unwilling to correct mistakes fully, candidly, prominently and promptly, and with grace.

Newspapers have this idea that if they are constantly writing corrections that they will look like idiots so they start coming up with reasons why they don't have to run corrections or clarifications.

But readers see the running of corrections as a commitment of the newspaper to get it right and if it doesn't get it right initially, a willingness to make it right.

Accuracy is the fundamental mission of a newspaper. If it is unwilling to admit when it got something wrong, clearly its credibility goes right down the tubes.

Another complaint is that the press is biased -- not with a liberal bias, but with a negative one. There is too much focus on what is wrong and what is in conflict, and not enough on reporting and explaining what is working and succeeding. There is too much focus on the "failures" of the system and not enough on the "victories" of life and the people who live in our communities.

The "If it bleeds, it leads" attitude always has been prominent in the media -- print and broadcast, but is it fair? The Freedom Forum reports one reader who said, "Eccentric behavior among students occurs 2 percent of the time and normal behavior is 98 percent,but the reporting is opposite of that."

Newspapers are supposed to reflect the community in which they live but if it is printing nothing but bad news, how accurate or fair is that? And if those newspapers are digging up the "problems" with seeking solutions, how responsible is that? Newspapers should report on the communities they serve from the proverbial "warts and all" standpoint but many publications, as the readers see it, are only printing the warts.

Newspapers owe their readers accuracy and fairness. Striving for both should be a primary goal.

"Bleeding the Black Ink" is a weekly column that aims at getting readers better acquainted with the Craig Daily Press, the First Amendment and the newspaper industry. Do you have a question or an issue for an upcoming column? Call Terrance Vestal at 824-7031 or email him at tvestal@craigdailypress.com.

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