Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Accuracy is not a process

From Boston to music festivals, mistakes in journalism are a symptom of a broken system.

Thu, Apr 25, 2013, 12:44


Breaking news is broken. You know it, I know it, the RT’s on Twitter know it, AP knows it, the stuttering updates on CNN know it, the ticker on Sky News knows it.

The role of Reddit in the Boston coverage is fascinating. Crowdsourcing information is an important tool, but perhaps not in life and death situation. Crowdsourcing information from Reddit in the aftermath of the marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt was not policing, it was not amateur sleuthing, it was allowing a mob to construct a jigsaw by plucking the pieces out of air heavy with the fog of conspiracy and jubilant sweat that pricks the skin when a real life action movie is unfolding.

Trusted news sources need to learn how to tap into the vast amounts of information online, but they also simultaneously need to learn to drown out the din, and not tune into all of it. Examining the unbelievably shoddy journalism that unfolded on CNN, the New York Post, and even the “here’s some pictures, even though they’re not verified” on the Guardian’s live blog was depressing. If those three organisations for example (well, maybe not the Post which is even ordinarily quite a loopy paper), had stuck to their tried and tested methods of reporting, they wouldn’t have botched the story as much as they did.

Now, people are absolutely entitled to sleuth away. And everyone is entitled to make a fake Electric Picnic line-up poster such as the one the Irish Times Live Blog got taken in by today. But unfortunately right now, when any information comes to attention, there needs to be a pause before it’s presumed legit. I saw that fake Picnic line-up tweeted by smart people, even though it was obviously a fake on so many counts. I saw people tweeting that Daft Punk were playing Glastonbury, even though the announcement was made on a fake website. I saw fake Oxegen line-ups, fake Coachella posters, fake Primavera announcements, fake everything. It helps to be in the know about who may or may not be playing something, but it also helps to do a quick check before you even run the risk of getting taken in.

Online, there is a belief that accuracy is a process. That news can be broken before it is confirmed. That factual errors are things that can be retrieved. That mistakes are the stepping stones to truth. Once upon a time, such attitudes were mortal sins in newsrooms. Boston showed that old media was just as willing to act like a giddy teenager bullshitting on a thread as anyone else. Accuracy is not a process. Accuracy is absolute.

Traditional media’s downfall will not be its inability to adopt. It will in fact be its excessive adoption. All over television, radio and pages, media outlets are trying to compete in spaces they do not own, printing tweets in news pages when tweets primarily belong on Twitter. Allowing the inane commentary of vested interests to clog up comment facilities. Disguising increasingly stupid ‘stories’ as real news worth reading or watching, be it the ‘and finally’ segment of RTE news reports broadcasting YouTube videos or treating a Facebook PR crisis as more significant than a regular PR crisis. Newspapers especially, by trying to compete in a space the internet has already filled, adopt the awkward stance of a rugby player who has signed up for ballroom dancing classes, stumbling around all ham-fisted and unsure. You can put on a sparkly shirt and shiny shoes, but it doesn’t make you Fred Astaire. What traditional media is actually doing is not ‘adopting’ but diluting what makes it strong in the first place; authority, expertise, truth, levelheaded analysis, informed opinion, quality investigations, smart commentary, decent writing. There is nothing wrong with doing what you’re good at. There is nothing wrong with being smart.

Mistakes happen. I’ve made them. We all make them. Every journalist knows the sinking feeling of a wrong figure cited, a botched caption, or an embarrassing typo. On the more serious end of the scale, bigger mishaps occur prompting solicitors letters and sometimes libel cases. Occasionally there are litanies of errors where an entire process falls apart ending careers. We know that because of the level of unfiltered information online, mistakes are more prone to occurring without editorial control, without checks. But trusted sources now have a decision to make: do they jump into this maelstrom, or do they sidestep it?

For me, there are four key points to safeguarding accuracy.

1. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t talk about it. Obviously this would end the vast majority of conversations online, in pubs, taxi rides and at house parties at 3am. But in journalism, while it’s a nice fuzzy feeling for you to be learning along with your audience, there needs to be a sense of authority, a depth of knowledge, and a degree of expertise. Without those three things, there is zero trust between reader and writer.

2. Check your facts. Always. Then check them again. Then ring someone who knows more about the facts than you and check them with that person. Then go back to where you first heard the facts and check it with them. Then try to get the same facts from another source. The reader does not give one fuck about who was first with a story. Firstism and scooping is an obsession of the media, not the public. People don’t remember who was first with a story, but they do remember who was wrong.

3. As Laura Slattery writes today, it helps to be there. If you are seeing things unfold in front of you, chances are you’re going to have a greater grasp of what’s going on than if you’re sitting at your desk trawling hashtags. Unfortunately, the constraints of modern media; financial constraints, constraints of time, and the constraints of workloads on journalists who have to deliver more content, are enemies to ‘being there’. There are plenty of reporters who don’t go outside anymore. I hate to break it to them, but that’s not reporting.

4. And for media organisations: examine the tools that encourage wavering on any of these counts. If AP didn’t have a Twitter account, the stock market wouldn’t have gone cray. Of course it’s naive to think a news agency could operate without Twitter in 2013, but if you’re going to, examine the security risks around that tool, and make sure you have every protection in place to make sure that the aul “systems failure” doesn’t happen. The concept of rolling breaking news and constant updates is one that is so susceptible to mistakes and inaccuracies that I would really question whether organisations that pride themselves on accuracy and truth should really be engaging in it at all. It’s about getting it right. Not getting it right now.

And finally… the next generation of ‘news gatherers’ has grown up in an environment where facts are muddled, where information is sometimes deliberately and vindictively faked, where the opinions heard are from those who shout the loudest, where a filter bubble aggregates their information in order not to challenge them but to preach to their choir, where photos of “suspects” are printed based on no evidence, where the accuracy of information is never a given – yet the gullibility of treating it as such is massive, where a platform can be gained without any expertise, where reporting actually means recycling, where a new breed of outrage greets the tiniest dissatisfaction. Cynicism and skepticism are often seen as negative traits for journalists. But they are also bullshit shields against the arrows of inaccuracy. Put your shield up. Otherwise, you’re just a target.