Telling it like it is
January 6, 2004
A perfect newspaper would be one that got all its news reports precisely correct. The fact that no such newspaper exists is attested to by the fact that even the most distinguished newspapers publish corrections from time to time in which they apologise to readers for mistakes of fact.
Given the constraints of time all newspapers face in preparing and publishing news stories some errors are inevitable. Yet completely accurate (and objective and balanced) reporting must be the ideal of any newspaper worth its salt. For a moment's thought will show that the primary and all-important task of a good newspaper is to get the facts right. If it is doing this consistently and reliably it is performing a public service of immense value.
It is interesting to note the extent to which some high quality publications, not all of them newspapers, go to check the facts before publishing. On one reported occasion the fact-checking department of a magazine rang a public figure to check if what he had been reported as saying in another publication some time before, which had not been denied, was accurate. Such Olympian standards cannot always be maintained yet sub-editors and others who perform the role of gatekeepers would in an ideal world check all alleged statements of fact in a report before them before passing it for publication. Where there is any doubt about the wording of a statement made that day at a press conference, for example, (that is why tape recordings can be so important) efforts should be made to check with the speaker. All certifiable facts (dates, times, statistics of production, export figures) should be routinely checked, which is why it is extremely important to build a sound data base.
People make erroneous statements every day, sometimes in good faith. Look at any chat show on television and the point will be clearly established. In many cases neither the host nor the participants have a command of the facts relevant to the topic under discussion at any given time, be it the housing situation, the constitution, extra-judicial killings or anything else. What takes place frequently, therefore, is an emotional discussion based on suppositions which are often wrong. This is inevitably counterproductive as it is not addressing real issues and is creating non-issues. This is also frequently the case in casual, social discussions between friends and colleagues. The factual assumptions are wrong. Two well-placed questions will often reveal that the speaker doesn't know what he or she is talking about, or has only the vaguest idea. They have not done the work to equip themselves with the necessary information. Everyone is guilty of this at some time.
Getting it right should be everything for a newspaper of record, the reports of which have been optimistically described by some commentators as the first draft of history. For public debate to have value it must be based on accurate facts and figures. Take the housing problem, how many people actually need houses, what does infrastructure (roads, drains, electricity) cost to install? Without the basic facts this topic cannot be usefully discussed.
Editors, sub-editors and all concerned with the publication of newspapers, magazines and non-fiction books should be obsessed with getting it right. This is often much harder than it sounds.
If newspapers get it wrong they can create misunderstanding or mistrust, offend and injure people wrongly, strain industrial relations and in the worst case scenarios start a riot and even promote genocide. It is indeed a heavy responsibility if properly understood. The professional duty of a good, experienced journalist is first and foremost to get the facts right. They have to, quite literally, learn how to do this properly by checking other reliable sources, data bases, public records, archives and so on. In time they can introduce background and context but the overarching, overwhelming duty is to get the facts right. As a former distinguished editor of the Manchester Guardian, C.P. Scott, once said, "Comment is free, facts are sacred." In other words, you can say what you want in your editorial columns and people will accept or reject it as they see fit but in your news reports, whatever the ideological or other position of your newspaper, "facts are sacred." They must not be slanted, twisted or falsified. If that is done deliberately that is shocking and a betrayal of the journalistic mission. If it is done inadvertently that is sloppy and unprofessional.
Telling it like it is requires doing the work and having the skills, the technique and the experience to get it right. That is still the exception, not the rule, in our young and unformed media culture. But it has to be the ideal we all strive for.