Accuracy Matters
• Spelling/grammar mistakes • Factual errors • Corrections • Attitudes about accuracy • Credibility of newspapers vs. TV • Rush to publish • Unnamed sources
 
Finding No. 1

The public sees too many factual errors and spelling or grammar mistakes in newspapers. 

Journalists concur with their judgment. Both put the major blame on deadline pressures.

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). 

Spelling/grammar mistakes

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 their paper. 
Essentially, readers don't care whether the reporter was rushed, the staff was down three people, or the copy editor was too busy laying out pages to catch misuses of the common language (Table 1). Every focus group had something to say on the topic: 

  • "They used to proofread. I don't know what they do now."
  • "Every time I pick it up (I see mistakes)."
  • "Do they have journalism degrees or did they just get out of kindergarten?"
  • "It seems like the paper's gotten sloppier in the last 10 years."
  • "Jay Leno does his thing on headlines and photos that don't match the story ... and he does 10 or 15 every week. That's just a small fraction of what's going on out there." 
The Newsroom Perspective: When asked for the major reason why these kinds of mistakes occur, the journalists' answers fall in three categories (Table 2). First, 34 percent say that the "rush to deadline" is the major culprit, with those on the front line (reporters and photographers) most likely to offer that reason. Another third of the newsroom reports that a combination of being "overworked" and "understaffed" is the major contributing factor to mistakes, with mid- and top-level editors being most likely to mention this. 

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: 

  • "A high volume of pages combined with early deadlines."
  • "Laziness, failure to communicate, stupidity by some folks out of their league, inattention to detail."
  • "We make too many bone-headed errors because reporters and editors are overworked." 
Some intimated attitudinal or cultural factors at work: 
  • "Reporters and editors often believe they are right, so they don't check style books or dictionaries."
  • "There's sharply diminishing quality control, a sharp decline in the quality of staff the newspaper is able to attract, and a corporate culture that punishes those who speak against the above trends, cutbacks ..."
  • "There's not much focus on accuracy. No one seems to care. I often hear, 'Oh well.' " 
When asked who tends to spot mistakes after publication, 50 percent say they're noticed first in the newsroom, although 37 percent say they're seen equally by the newsroom and readers. 

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). 

Factual errors 

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: 

  • "If you have expertise (in an area) and you read newspaper coverage, you find error after error."
  • "They've got sixth-graders writing the obits, I'll tell you that."
  • "A reporter is a reporter - not a geologist, not a doctor. They're laymen. You can't trust what they say." 
While almost half of the public believes that mistakes and errors occur in the rush to meet deadlines, 27 percent attribute them to sloppiness, laziness or lack of caring, and an additional 5 percent suggest that the journalists just don't know any better (Table 4). 

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: 

  • "Reporters don't understand what they're writing about, and editors don't ask enough questions."
  • "Only a few of the national papers, like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, seem to pay much attention to getting information correct."
  • "In my eight years here, only once have I been questioned about why my story was different from a competitor's." 
Though there's little difference between the journalists and the public on whether factual errors are appearing more frequently (22 percent vs. 21 percent respectively), editors feel more strongly than their staffs that the problem is on the rise. 

Corrections

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: 

  • 73 percent of adults have become more skeptical about news accuracy.
  • 68 percent believe that newspapers run a lot of stories without checking them just because other papers have published them, not because they know they're true. 
 The degree of skepticism increases with age. Ninety percent of adults have concluded that they would get a higher quality news report if there was newspaper competition - an attitude that's particularly strong in larger markets (where the memory of a two-newspaper town might still linger), and among the boomers between 35 and 54. 

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: 

  • Offer better explanations and details in news stories (8 percentage points) than TV. 
  • Have higher standards for accuracy (5 percentage points) than TV.
 
In other words, 78 percent of people who see corrections of errors they've noticed feel better about the newspaper.
Beyond those stipulations - some of which could be considered positive attributes that are inherent in the print format itself - television is clearly perceived by the majority of adults to have two clear strengths over newspapers: 
  • Immediacy (93 percent feel it is the first to "break" the news).
  • Expediency (60 percent feel TV offers a better overview of most important news). 
 And two relative weaknesses: 
  • 74 percent believe that TV puts more emphasis on the personalities of newsmakers than the issues. 
  • More adults believe that TV is worried more about profits than the public interest (50 percent vs. 32 percent for newspapers). 
The public was presented with two news situations and asked to choose which news medium they would trust more (Tables 9 and Table 10). 

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: 

  • 40 percent said they'd believe the TV, primarily because "they just trust it more" or "it had later, fresher news."
  • 31 percent said they'd believe the newspaper, primarily because they had "more time to investigate" and "just trusted that source more." 
 
While focus group participants were surprisingly understanding of newsroom deadline constraints, most expresed a strong preference that newspapers not rush to publish.
The second hypothetical presented a conflict in the reported number of people killed in a bank robbery, with the evening news reporting five and the next day's paper reporting three dead. Here the public's judgment was more clear-cut: 
  • 60 percent said they'd believe the newspaper, overwhelmingly because of the time it had to investigate.
  • 23 percent said they'd believe TV, primarily because "they knew the reporter was actually there" and "they could see the film." 
Perhaps the topic of the "interest rate" hypothetical compelled a draw, but from both sets of responses there's a clue that the public believes whichever news source has the later report (not the "first out") is the medium that has an edge in presumed credibility. It's eminently logical to people that the intervening time would have been well spent in investigating, checking and double-checking. 

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:" 

  • "Newspapers used to be able to research things. Now it's on CNN before papers have time to get their stories together."
  • "They rush a story without getting all the facts."
  • "Reporters are like 5-year-olds on the playground. They want to be the first to tell the teacher that Johnny did something. Reporters want to be the first to say 'the president did this and that.' "
  • "Hold until you can confirm." 
  • "Very few things are so urgent (that should keep reporters from) having to verify a story. I understand the desire to be Number 1, but that's no excuse not to be accurate." 
  • "There was a time when news was 15 minutes at night. Now it's 24 hours a day. You have to get the animal fed 24 hours a day." 
Unnamed sources

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: 

  • "Print your policy on unnamed sources. It's a statement of your quality control." 
  • "If you're not sure, don't trumpet it as fact. Use words like 'unconfirmed.' Explain." 
  • "Give explanations and (say), 'We have investigated and this is what we know.' " 
The Newsroom Perspective: While the issue of anonymous or unnamed sources was not asked specifically in the newsroom questionnaire, one journalist at a mid-size paper commented: "Anonymous sources are a major news-gathering problem. Why should I trust the judgment of a reporter about whom I know little?" 

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.


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