Journalism has always been one of the most important sources of information and day-to-day news. To deliver this information - in text, picture or audio - everyday, or even every hour online and in broadcast media, journalists have to jump over many hurdles, many times with great risk to their lives.
The public has thus come to trust that whatever happens, the journalists will be there to tell the story. If it happens in the dark, they will shine a light on it.
With the advent of the Internet and growth of social media and citizen journalism, there has been a tectonic shift in the flow of information with a significant portion of the public getting news and information primarily from social media. Unfortunately, this has come with the phenomenon of fake news, unverified information and misinformation.
Today, the traditional media (the professional ones), therefore, stand out as the more dependable and reliable source of information delivered with accuracy and the right perspective.
This, however, is not to say journalists or traditional media does not sometimes get it wrong. It does!
Because of the sheer volume of information that reporters and editors have to process in a very limited time to beat production deadlines, some mistakes will be made, or will pass undetected. There are, however, established systems of quality control and correction to fall back on in the eventuality that a mistake has been made.
In Nation Media Group, this system is embodied in its Group Editorial Policy that cuts across all its platforms in East Africa. I reproduce below two sections of the editorial policy that address the matter of when we get it wrong. Excerpts:
Accuracy and fairness
l The fundamental objective of a journalist is to report fairly, accurately and without bias on matters of public interest. All sides of a story should be reported. It is important to obtain comments from anyone mentioned in unfavourable context.
l Whenever it is recognised that an inaccurate, misleading or distorted report has been published, it should be corrected promptly. Corrections should report the correct information and not restate the error except when clarity demands.
Ideally, corrections should be made in a regular format and similar position as promptly as possible after the error has been detected.
l Corrections do not normally require an apology and apologies should normally be made on the basis of legal advice.
Opportunity to reply
A fair opportunity to reply to inaccuracies should be given to individuals or organisations when reasonably called for. If the request to correct inaccuracies in a story is in the form of a letter, the editor has the discretion to publish it in full or its abridged and edited version, particularly when it is too long.
However, the editor should not omit or refuse to publish important portions of the reply/rejoinder, which effectively deal with the accuracy of the offending story.
If the editor doubts the truth or factual accuracy of the reply/rejoinder, even then, it is his/her duty to publish it with liberty to append an editorial comment doubting its veracity. Note that this should be done only when this doubt is reasonably founded on impeccable evidence in the editor’s possession.
The editor should not, in a cavalier fashion, without due application of mind, append such a note as: “We stand by our story.”
Errors have lived with journalism because journalists are humans after all. What makes the difference for consumers of journalism is when media come clean and correct the errors so they don’t stand as a record. Daily Monitor has a designated correction box on page two.
The importance of correcting journalists’ errors is best summarised by Canadian journalist Craig Silverman, quoted in a Poynter Institute article, “Why journalists make mistakes, what can we do about them”.
He says: “The ‘big picture’ errors cause a high level of outrage, or exact a higher price in terms of the level of trust in our profession. People often feel that these kinds of mistakes reveal the bias and unprofessionalism that exist in journalism.”
However, when media accepts it was wrong, it “can actually help news consumers trust us more”, says Kathryn Schulz, author of a book “Being Wrong” quoted in the same article.
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