Two “magic recipes” for more journalistic quality

April 16, 2004 • Ethics and Quality • by

Werbewoche, Nr. 14, April, 2004

It is irritating to see the lack of attention shown by media practitioners to one of the most important problems in journalistic quality management: the reduction and correction of reporting errors. Research in this field is still at its very beginning. For journalistic credibility two initiatives that do not even cost much would be important.

In their readiness to deal with feedback from the public, the Swiss media probably already hold a record. Letters sent in by readers are appreciated by most newspapers. St. Gallen’s daily newspaper has added a female student as a new “youth-spokesperson” to the observer and columnist who accompanies the newspaper from the outside with critical comments about the newspaper itself. Her task will be, once a month, to give voice to the future generation, as well as to evaluate what the newspaper offers from the younger generation’s point of view. Ombudsmen, to whom one can turn with complaints, do not only exist for radio and television, where they are legally prescribed: some publishing houses have them as well. At the Neue Luzerner Zeitung there has even been a readership counsel for some years. The Swiss press council acts more actively and more visibly than comparable committees elsewhere in the world.

On the other hand none of these institutions seem to suffer from a serious work overload, although the complaints received by the press council have increased dramatically over the past few years. Even in Switzerland, most media are content with measuring reader satisfaction just by looking at increases in circulation or the number of spectators tuning in to a program. Some marketing departments go an extra step and determine the reasons for cancellations of subscriptions. Many years ago the economist Albert O. Hirschman pointed out what precious information clients deliver to a company when they express their discontent rather than remaining silent and simply walking away.

The altogether pleasing quality-conscious climate of Swiss newsrooms could meanwhile be fertile ground for further initiatives. By this I do not just mean more market research, which is expensive, but which will become more influential anyway.

What is more irritating is the lack of attention shown by media practitioners so far to one of the most important problems in journalistic quality management: the reduction and correction of reporting errors, which occur every day in editorial offices in the fast-paced news business. The research for this is still at its very beginning. For journalistic credibility, which must be maintained and restored, two initiatives that do not even cost much would be important. They are so simple that one is tempted to call them “magic recipes”:

Firstly newsrooms should voluntarily, and on a daily basis, correct reporting errors from the previous day. American newspapers have been doing this for years, and their readers appreciate it.

The second suggestion is as follows: at regular intervals journalists should report back to their informants and check with a short questionnaire whether their reporting of facts was correct, whether interpretations were perceived as being fair, and whether there are important points of view, which were not reported in the newspaper.

The second suggestion comes from Jim Chisholm, who observes the progress of quality management in newspaper editorial offices world-wide on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers. He wonders why his seemingly well-grounded suggestion encounters so little approval from chief editors. The usefulness of such an action would be enormous: “It would be a clear signal that the newspaper is seriously concerned about the accuracy of its reporting.” Each reader would feel that he has the right to speak freely. In a very short time one would get a picture of whose professional skills should be further trained up within the newsroom. “Moreover, one out of every three pieces of feedback contains an opportunity for a follow-up story”, says Chisholm.

And best of all: most editorial offices could make a large leap forward in this field even without scientific assistance or consultants.

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