More errors in US newspapers

March 3, 2006 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 03, 2006

US newspaper journalists seem to have become increasingly prone to errors. According to a study conducted by Scott R. Maier, University of Oregon and recently published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (vol. 82, 2005, pp. 533-551) , 61 per cent of local newspaper reports and features contain factual inaccuracies. To obtain this result, 4,800 articles were taken from 14 different newspapers and sent back to the people and institutions cited as primary sources for an assessment of factual accuracy.

This clearly goes to show that, since the publication of Mitchell Charnley’s groundbreaking study 70 years ago – which launched the field of accuracy research and found an error rate of 46 per cent in US newspaper reports – the tendency of US journalists towards factual inaccuracy has increased further.

Several similar research projects conducted from the mid-1960s onwards have found error rates of between 40 and 60 per cent. However, it should be noted that the sources are usually too intimately involved with the information they provide to give a perfect assessment of factual accuracy. The figures, therefore, might be somewhat exaggerated.

Nevertheless, the data found so far makes it possible to identify some of the current trends. As far as this author can tell, no comparable studies have ever been conducted in Europe. Also, there seems to be no existence of any journalistic tradition of regular and honest error reporting usually done to boost a publication’s credibility. In a scenario where such a practice is missing and where factual errors are therefore treated somewhat lightly, it is not unlikely that even more of these errors are being committed.

At the end of his study Maier quotes his colleague and namesake Phil Meyer as saying: “a press that doesn’t make mistakes has no punch”. Given the fact that Meyer caused quite a sensation with his book on Precision Journalism, this statement carries all the more weight. However, it is certainly not to be mistaken for a “general amnesty” for journalists; for the argument does not work the other way round either! And so, more factual errors in newspaper reporting in no way guarantee said journalistic “punch”.

The main question continues to be: how many errors are tolerable – without journalism running the risk of losing even more of its credibility?

If we take Maier’s rate of 61 percent as a benchmark, it follows that a small daily corrections section, as presently to be found in most US newspapers, is not enough. A whole “corrections page” would be necessary, at least if this kind of error reporting is meant to be more than just cosmetics, more than an arbitrary reporting of the occasional error. Hence, the fear remains that in the US, the majority of errors will remain undetected, uncriticised and therefore uncorrected.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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