The adage “never apologise, never explain” might be embraced by certain arrogant politicians. However, it definitely should not be used by journalists and the media in general, especially at a time when truth is under attack and news media credibility is falling.
News media, particularly newspapers, have a long and admirable history of publishing corrections when they make mistakes, even though the very human impulse is to cringe, ignore it, and hope it will go away. But owning up to mistakes recognises responsibility and acknowledges the primary importance of credibility, which makes it stronger when your accuracy is challenged and you say: “We stand behind our story. And correct our mistakes.”
This is one of your core brand values. Nothing is more important. It differentiates reliable news media from many other voices in the digital world that ignore mistakes or even reinforce untruths if it fits their narrative. Nobody expects perfection, but customers can expect you to do your utmost to get it right and be fair.
In the digital world, news media companies no longer have the luxury of long deadlines and teams of editors to check copy — not when news is instantaneously disseminated to wide audiences … and not necessarily by media professions at all. Accuracy and credibility are challenged by the non-stop rush to break or match news when every second represents another deadline.
In this environment, where every mistake can be scrutinised by anyone and commented on in real time, it is even more important for news media to strengthen their policies and practices to prioritise accuracy to protect credibility and the brand values. This applies also — and especially — to digital platforms. They should be subjected to the same rigorous standards for accuracy that have long been the norm for print. This isn’t always the case.
A case in point is The New York Times award-winning Caliphate podcast, which was heavily criticised for overreliance on a source later determined to be unreliable. The Times’ own investigation determined the podcast did not meet the company’s editorial standards. And it reassigned the reporter, returned a prestigious award for the programme, and saw other awards rescinded. Its handling of the correction has been criticised for not going far enough, but the incident clearly had an impact.
Another trust-related issue is the coverage of public opinion polling, which has become ubiquitous and has contributed to the “horse race” style of political reporting, especially before elections. Polls are often presented as accurate and representative, if not infallible, and when they fail to forecast outcomes, the entire news media industry is blamed. This has a profound effect on credibility.
The reporting of public opinion polling is often abhorrent, due to a failure to understand the importance of including the necessary qualifiers: the margin of error, the method used to collect the data, and the methods used to “weight” the data to account for weaknesses. This information may be included in the original story in a foot note (though often it is not), but it can disappear in a Tweet or a digital posting.
Without context, the item is given and received with an assumption of more accuracy than it deserves — and the entire media gets burned when it is taken as a prediction that turns out to be false.
The industry usually goes through a self-criticism after such cases. This is most notable in the United States and France, where polling undercounted and underreported strong right-wing support. Yet, they go right back to covering polling as they always have.
It is up to each newsroom to institute policies that prevent these oversights. It is also necessary to ensure that not only journalists understand the need to provide the necessary context and disclaimers in stories, but also the audience, which needs to know what the qualifiers mean. It is newsrooms’ responsibility to educate them and make sure they take any poll with a grain of salt.
The same pro-active approach can also be applied to the separation of opinion from news stories. Even when opinion staff is clearly separated from the editorial team (which is mainly the case in Anglo-American newsrooms, though less so in Germany or Austria, for example) and doesn’t influence the news columns, today’s news consumers don’t necessarily understand or appreciate this separation. It is no wonder many of them believe news media is biased because they see news and opinion as one.
This could be something as simple as a note at the beginning or the end of any opinion piece identifying it as such, which would state this separation policy and how important it is to your product. It is a first step in educating news consumers of the importance of this separation and reinforces the importance of credible and unbiased news to your company. But it needs to be said frequently to make an impact.
There are, and always were, people who will distrust news media. But there are many others who expect and demand reliable and trustworthy news coverage. They are willing to pay for it, as long as they’re convinced their loyalty is rewarded.
Correcting errors, stating the gaps in presented data, and educating people not to believe everything they see or hear are important steps to make the audience aware of your commitment to accuracy. No story is worth sacrificing trust.