Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Can online journalism become more reliable? (Updated)

Americans' confidence in news media has been declining for decades. The most recent report by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press (2009) suggest that less than a third of Americans think media regularly gets their facts straight, and less than one in five feels news media deals fairly with all sides when covering politics or controversies.   The decline has been going on far longer than the twenty years reported by the Pew study, and has shown fairly consistent declines.  And the biggest source of declining trust and reputation has to do with the perceived accuracy of news reports.

Another report by Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism showed that more than half of local news and feature stories contained at least one error. More troubling, when errors were pointed out, newspapers published corrections in less than 3% of cases.  The Nieman piece goes on to argue for the need to develop and follow a strong corrections policy, particularly in a digital environment. Surveys of US newspapers indicate that half of all news stories online are not copyedited - more alarmingly, one in four news outlets report that they never edit, fact-check, or proofread the online news stories they post.  Only one in three editors reported copyediting or otherwise checking posts to blogs affiliated with the news site.

The rush to get the story out first, the ability to quickly post stories, and the general lack of oversight and pre-publication review suggest that online journalism may be error-prone.  The rapidity in which stories are picked up, shared, and integrated in other news reports means that the consequences of errors propagating throughout the Web are magnified.  On the other hand, it's been argued that the Web provides the opportunity for readers to point out any errors, and allows for rapid corrections to be made.  How corrections are made may itself be an issue. Do revised stories just appear without notice of any change or correction (the hot phrase for that seems to be "airbrushing" stories), or are the corrections or edits specifically acknowledged, with or without maintaining the various versions of the story?

The Nieman report made some initial suggestions, indicating that making formal acknowledgments of errors and quickly making corrections not only helped improve readers' perceptions of reliability, but also had the effect of reducing the frequency of future errors.  A piece in PBS' Mediashift Idea Lab by Scott Rosenberg offers more concrete suggestions:
  1. Link generously - particularly to source materials
  2. Show your work - indicate what corrections or changes are made (or better yet, make all versions available)
  3. Make it easy for readers to report possible errors - harness their expertise (it's free)
While these are good ideas, I've noticed that they're employed more by bloggers and citizen journalists than by so-called reputable news outlets. Interestingly, the Mediashift piece seems to acknowledge this, to the point of offering several explanations for why old-line news organizations aren't doing these things. The main problem seems to be a sort of professional arrogance - they're the news professionals, after all, and they don't make errors - or at least not the kinds of errors that might be pointed out by the riffraff that's their readers. As Rosenberg  put it:
Many journalists view readers as adversaries...  the specific reader with a complaint is "someone with an agenda" whom they have a duty to ignore.
On the other hand, there are also some structural factors at play - once a story is out, reporters normally move on to something new, and there is little incentive in news organizations to keep returning to "old news."  That approach is part of the old media emphasis of reporting to deadlines, of working to fixed editions rather than a continuing news flow. In addition, making corrections doesn't bring in revenue directly, although you could make a strong case that making corrections and improving your reputation makes a news outlet more valuable in the long run.  A focus on short term revenue generation also contributes to policies against linking outside one's own site, and the failure to incorporate online features conducive to eliciting comments and corrections and versioning into content management systems.

I think Rosenberg comes to a good conclusion:
Ask journalists what sets them apart from everyone else sharing information online and we'll say: We care about accuracy. We correct our mistakes. In a changing media economy that's challenging the survival of our profession, we need to follow through on those avowals. ... But journalists will never regain public trust unless we overcome (these obstacles to correcting errors).
But read all three of these reports - they ought to serve as a wake-up call for journalists and news organization..  The next Pew reputational study should be out this fall, and we'll see whether journalism continues to throw away its credibility and reputation.  Given their recent performance, I expect the decline to continue.  And that's very problematic to journalism's long term survival.
When you've lost your credibility, you've lost any value as a news organization - what's left is little more than entertainment and gossip.

"How Newsrooms Can Win Back Their Reputations" PBS Mediashift Idea Lab
"Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low", Pew Research Center report
"Confessing Errors in a Digital Age," Nieman Report

Edit 1: Fixed some typos.

Update (29June2011) - One day - and a new poll result from Gallup suggests that confidence in news organizations has improved - slightly (up 1-2%). And provides a new graphic.
1990-2011 Trend: Americans' Confidence in Newspapers and Television News

Source: "Americans regain some confidence in Newspapers, TV News" Gallup Reports

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