• Spelling/grammar mistakes • Factual errors • Corrections • Attitudes about accuracy • Credibility of newspapers vs. TV • Rush to publish • Unnamed sources
There is remarkable unanimity between the public and journalists on the fundamental value of accuracy and "telling it like it is," but both groups are skeptical about overall accuracy and would rather see journalists get it right than get it first.
Both journalists and the public believe that even seemingly small errors feed public skepticism about a newspaper's credibility. More than a third of the public - 35 percent - see spelling or grammar mistakes in their newspaper more than once a week and 21 percent see them almost daily.
Compared to the public, twice as many journalists - 70 percent - find spelling and grammar errors, typos, mislabelings and misidentifications in their paper more than once a week (Table 1). While 30 percent of reporters and photographers see mistakes "almost every day" in their papers, 50 percent of managing editors and assistant managing editors find them that frequently.
Beyond the typos, 23 percent of the public find factual errors in the news stories of their daily paper at least once a week (Table 3). While only 21 percent of those who found factual errors believe they're occurring more frequently in the paper, 60 percent believe there are just as many errors now as there have always been.
When they see errors, 19 percent of the public "always" sees a correction, and 40 percent "sometimes" see one (Table 5) A higher percentage of journalists notice corrections than the public (58 percent "always" see them), perhaps because journalists are paid not only to write, but also to read the paper more thoroughly.
A slightly higher percentage of the newsroom sample - 33 percent of journalists overall and 47 percent of top editors - see factual errors in their daily newspaper more than once a week (Table 3 and Table 4).
More than three-quarters of the public expressed concern about the credibility of news stories that use anonymous sources, and 45 percent say a story shouldn't run at all if no one will go "on the record" (Table 11).
The Public Perspective: Each misspelled word, bad apostrophe,
garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabeled map erodes
public confidence in a newspaper's ability to get anything right. One focus
group even laughed out loud when asked whether mistakes ever appeared in
Another third see "inattention, carelessness, inexperience, poor knowledge" and just-plain-bad editing and reporting as the cause of mistakes, with more unanimity across the newsroom on this response. It should be noted that many of the journalists that blamed the copy desk were also quick to add the explanation that pagination has taken many copy editors away from attention to editing and into the business of page design.
Besides these three major areas of concern, there were a number of explanations added by journalists responding to the newsroom questionnaire:
Almost twice as many top editors think that editors catch the mistakes first (36 percent vs. 19 percent of the total newsroom sample).
And almost twice as many reporters/photographers think the staff catches them first (31 percent vs. 18 percent of the total newsroom sample).
The Public Perspective: Some of these factual errors appear understandable because they are errors of knowledge, a point made by a number of the focus group participants:
Older adults report finding errors and mistakes more frequently than do those under age 35.
The Newsroom Perspective: In the newsroom, 38 percent blame deadline pressure for factual errors in stories. A much higher percentage - 66 percent - attribute errors of fact to carelessness, inexperience or sloppiness, a level of self-criticism more than twice as high as found in the public. Some of the journalists' comments were disturbing:
The Public Perspective: Clearly, admitting mistakes and errors is not only a wise practice, but a very desirable one among readers - 63 percent said they "felt better" about the quality of the news coverage they get when they see corrections. In other words, 78 percent of people who see corrections of errors they've noticed feel better about the newspaper. The focus groups reinforced the importance and expiatory value of corrections, summed up by this comment: "Stress accuracy. If there's a mistake, admit it. People are more likely to believe you. Don't hide it in small print. Let them know you want them to know your mistakes."
The Newsroom Perspective: A higher percentage of journalists notice corrections than the public (58 percent "always" see them).
Ninety-three percent of journalists report that their newspaper has a designated space in which to run corrections (Table 6), with the majority saying that column or space is used primarily to correct factual errors, misidentifications or mislabels on photos. Using that space to fix spelling/grammar mistakes or provide additional information to clarify or add context happens much less frequently.
Attitudes about accuracy
The Public Perspective: On the ubiquitous foundation of public belief that "the major job of the press is to report the truth, even if it's painful or shocking to a lot of people" (Table 7), it's discouraging to learn that:
The Newsroom Perspective: Ninety-nine percent of the journalists responding to the survey agree that the major job of the press is "to report the truth, even if it's painful or shocking to a lot of people."
And 87 percent believe that "people get a higher quality of news coverage if there's more than one newspaper competing in a market."
Despite that, 52 percent of the newsroom feel that "newspapers run a lot of stories without checking them just because other papers have published them, not because they know they're true," (with more reporters and photographers "strongly agreeing" to that statement than do editors).
Some also advocate a slower cycle to allow time to ensure accuracy. Said one editor at a small paper: "I lament the 'get-it-fast, get-it-first' attitude that's crept into journalism. In too many instances, it's thematically opposed to 'get it right.' "
Credibility of newspapers vs. TV
The Public Perspective: Both daily newspapers and television are widely used sources of news and information, and each is perceived to have specific competitive advantages (Table 8).
Complaints about mistakes and errors must be understood in light of the public's belief that newspapers have a significant advantage over TV as the medium that does more careful research (a 16 percentage point lead).
And also in their perceptions (albeit with a much slighter lead) that newspapers:
First was the inconsistency between a newspaper's report of a 2 point increase in interest rates, and that evening's news broadcast of a 1 point increase. In this situation:
The shooting story, in fact, makes this conclusion even more compelling. Even in the face of "film at 11" and a (natural) preference for on-site, eyewitness accounts by reporters, newspapers win.
The responses suggest that because a majority of adults presume that the time interval was used in that paper's newsroom to check facts, interview multiple witnesses, proofread and edit, and then elaborate and enrich the story in ways that only print can do - they reward that effort with higher credibility scores. This is a big clue to understanding one of the ways to begin correcting the credibility problem.
Rush to publish
The Public Perspective: While focus group participants were surprisingly understanding of newsroom deadline constraints, most expressed a strong preference that newspapers not rush to publish, but focus on "getting it right" rather than "getting it first:"
The Public Perspective: While again, it's the older adults who express the deepest suspicions, all of the focus groups shared the concern about unnamed sources, summed up by the comment: "I want to know why someone is not identified."
The focus groups suggested that anonymity might be more palatable if the newspaper explained their policy on "sources said" journalism:
If it's possible to distrust one's colleagues' judgments, it's small wonder that the public cites "sources-said" journalism as one more reason to question credibility.