Accuracy and Reliability
A media organization will be judged on the accuracy and reliability of its journalism, which must be well sourced, supported by strong evidence, examined and tested, clear and unambiguous.
Verified facts must form the basis of all news, not rumour and speculation.
Accuracy is essential if journalism is to inform the public debate.
Accuracy comes ahead of speed. If you are not sure, hold fire. Being first and wrong is not a model to aim for. Being right, always reliable and measured is.
• We need to be totally transparent in declaring what we know and what we don’t know. Those who trust you will be prepared to wait for your version. In fact they might use your coverage to check whether a hastily prepared item by a competitor has any truth in it.
Caution is particularly needed if the topic is controversial. Most major news providers require:
Double-checking of facts
Validation of material submitted
Confirmation via two reliable sources
Corroboration of any claims or allegations made
Be cautious about people who are offered up to speak on an issue. They might be being promoted for a reason other than to accurately inform the public debate.
You need to take care in order to examine the motives of those offering contributors and those offering to contribute.
Don’t take for granted what you read on a third-party website. It might look professional and sound convincing, but that doesn’t mean it is true.
You will also need to keep records of the research you carried out in reaching your conclusions. These should all be contained in your notebook, or, in the case of those using computers, in folders and files.
Always keep a track of all bookmarks and email correspondence relating to your stories. However, where anonymity has been requested or where it is essential, make sure that your records do not identify those you have interviewed.
Most reporters, when they start work for the first time, are given a notebook and told to keep it safe and never throw it away. You never know when you may have to refer to your notes as evidence in a legal case.
Accurate note-taking is essential. The usual rule is that notes must not only be accurate, they must also be reliable and contemporaneous.
That means that you need to have spoken to reliable sources at the time an incident happened, rather than jot down from memory casual conversations long after the event. The latter is unlikely to stand up in a court of law.
Unless you know the person who created the material, and are absolutely sure they are genuine and honest, remain cautious until you have verified it. Or, if you feel you must refer to it, qualify and qualify again so that your audience is not led to think you are recommending the material as proven fact.
When people turn to you they expect you to deliver facts. You can refer to material gathered elsewhere, but always qualify it by saying that this material is from another source, and state that source.
It is also worth adding that you have not been able to verify the information given, if that is the case.
It is fine to research information online and check it out yourself, but you must never take as fact information that is published elsewhere.
Don’t be fooled by images, videos, audio and reproduced documents. Digital manipulation is commonplace.
In the past, an edit in a filmed interview often had to be covered by what is known as a cut-away shot, which took the eye of the viewer away from the point in the interview that was being edited. Now, with digital manipulation, that is no longer necessary. So don't be fooled by what you see and hear in audio/video footage. It may have been altered.
Sourcing such information is part of your commitment to accuracy. Who you go to will build on or damage your integrity.
Always make it clear when material has been provided by others. Attribution is essential. Say "according to…" or "it’s being reported by…" and you are covered.
However, in contentious issues, you will also be judged on who you turn to, so those sources you use need to be balanced and representative of the widest opinion base in order to protect your credibility.
At times you will want to build a report around statistics. Sometimes those statistics are offered to all news outlets via the wires. Even so, it’s worth qualifying. "According to" is useful in these circumstances.
Always state that there is a margin of error, particularly with trends. It is conceivable that businesses, political parties and individuals may make important decisions based on what you say.
Qualify your comments so that you are less likely to mislead.
The willingness to admit mistakes is another part of being accurate.
This has become all the more important in the age of online archives, although it has always been the case that mistakes in old newspaper cuttings could be repeated and result in an inaccurate report being circulated again years later.
Most news organizations will have a correction strategy in place.
Misleading the Audience
The concern over misleading the audience extends to some everyday journalistic practices that many in the profession consider to be the norm. These include:
Reverse questions added after the interview ends
Body-language signals in response to answers
Cut-away shots of items used to cover edits
Set-up shots of the interviewee and interviewer
overlay shots that show the interviewee at work
These can be fairly innocent editing techniques used to make a long and boring interview more digestible, however they can also be used to mislead.
Jargon and Journalese
Be temperate in language, especially in headlines. Keep a sense of proportion and recognise that storms and fury are often merely disagreements. This gives writing balance and maturity.
According to Collins dictionary, jargon is, firstly, "specialized language concerned with a particular subject" and, secondly, "language characterized by pretentious syntax, vocabulary or meaning".
An audience is broad, so any jargon in the first sense must be translated into terms that all readers can understand.
Wars are bloody by default, bombings kill people rather than create carnage, if a rocket hits a car we should be surprised not to find twisted and mangled wreckage. Those killed might occasionally be called victims, but never innocent; they are better off as the dead.
People have Aids or cancer, or are cancer or Aids patients. They are never victims, neither do they suffer from their disease. Cancer patients who recover have not won cancer battles.
Awards ceremonies do not have to glitter. Famous implies fame, so give a person's name and what they do - if the reader has heard of them then the label is unnecessary. If the reader has not, it is inaccurate.
To warn is a transitive verb and must take an object. The construction “gave warning that” is grammatically acceptable but clumsy and contrived. There is nothing wrong with the word said in nearly all cases.
Similarly, avoid cautioned. If you use the word claimed when attributing a quote or some reported speech to someone, bear in mind that it carries the suggestion that the person is not to be believed.
Do not use impact as a verb, as in the war impacted the economy. The war affected the economy, or better still destroyed or harmed it.
Things have an effect on something or are affected by something, or effect some change or other. Things can also have an impact on something, but in all cases it is better to say that they improved matters or made them worse.
The definition of impacted is, of a tooth, unable to erupt and, of a fracture, having the broken ends wedged together.
The word target, in the sense of aimed at or directed at, is overused. Say attacked, bombed, shot at or blown up if that is the case.
The word target is best used as a noun.
Targeted used to mean carrying a shield, from the Old French targette, meaning little shield. If you must use target as a verb, do so rarely.
Rigorous, robust and searching journalism will inevitably offend parts of the audience.
This is particularly true with global broadcasters who aim to reflect world affairs as they are, and in doing so cover all aspects of human experience.
Journalists must ensure that the material they use in coverage has a clear editorial purpose. Where that material is likely to offend, there need to be clear warnings of what is coming up.
The vulnerable, especially children, can be upset by the portrayal of violence, whether real or fictional. Such content must be clearly labelled.
However, we must not shirk from reporting about and showing the full impact of a story where real life violence, or its aftermath, is an integral part. In such cases we need to strike a balance between the demands of accuracy and the dangers of causing distress.
We should never be seen to condone or glamorise violence or antisocial behaviour
When Offence Silences News
Journalists need to be careful that offence is not used to prevent them from digging for news. Just because someone is offended doesn't mean the topic should not be investigated.
Television can observe a watershed - this is a time set when children are expected to be in bed and material which is more graphic and possibly shocking and offensive can be broadcast - in some countries that is set at 9pm.
Online is different; global news sites are viewed around the world 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Anything that is age-inappropriate should be labelled as such.
Offence and Journalism
A media organization should aim to reflect the needs, concerns and issues affecting all the people and cultures in its audience.
There will be times when the material we publish or broadcast will reflect the prejudices and disadvantages that exist in society, however journalists must not be seen to perpetuate any injustice.
In all cases they should avoid offensive or stereotypical assumptions. People should not be labelled in terms of a disability or sexual orientation.
Coverage of the aftermath of a tragic events such as the anniversaries of rail crashes, bomb blasts or child abductions need considerable sensitivity.
We need to balance the news justification with the likely personal suffering of survivors and relatives of victims.
Suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm should be portrayed with great sensitivity. Care must be taken to avoid describing or showing methods in any great detail. The term "commit suicide" is considered offensive by some people. Some prefer the terms "took his own life" or "killed herself." Again, we need to be careful that the vulnerable, particularly children, are not influenced.
We always need to consider carefully the editorial justification for portraying graphic material of human suffering and distress.
There are no circumstances in which it is justified to show executions, and very few circumstances in which it is justified to broadcast other scenes in which people are being killed.
We should also avoid the gratuitous use of close-ups of faces and serious injuries or other violent material.
Responsible media organizations will frequently return to past events in order to put current events in context. As a result, news producers need to ensure they do all they can to minimize any possible distress to the surviving victims and relatives.
This is particularly important when covering suffering and trauma. This also applies even when material being published or broadcast was previously in the public domain.
Where possible, surviving victims or the immediate families of the dead people who are to feature in the programme should be notified in advance
We must also be global in our news values. If we have editorial rules that state that we don’t publish details of someone who has been killed until the family has been notified, then that rule has to be applied globally.
The family of a dead person - who can clearly be identified from still pictures or footage - but who is the victim of a killing thousands of miles away, are entitled to the same editorial standards we apply when the incident is on our doorstep.
The passage of time is an important factor when it comes to making judgements about the broadcasting of graphic material. However, as the story unfolds it may become more difficult to justify its continued use.
Offence and Journalism
A journalist’s job is to report facts and inform the public debate so that people can make educated choices. We are not the judge and jury regarding what is right and wrong.
Journalists have a right, and a duty, to investigate stories in the public interest, but they must not consider themselves to be beyond the law.
Some feel that an individual's right to privacy is qualified by their behaviour (criminal or anti-social). This is not for the journalist to decide.
This is also a delicate area, particularly in transition and post-conflict countries where what might be termed by some to be anti-social or unlawful behaviour could, in some cases, be seen by others as an important and legitimate protest against unjust regimes and systems.
If we are asked to stop recording because of concerns about privacy, we should do so unless it is editorially justified to continue. At that point we need to be absolutely clear about our reasons.
Even then, the journalist must be sure that they have come to a considered conclusion having weighed all the facts.