The ‘essentially accurate’ standard

One word should describe reporters and editors in their gathering and presentation of news: meticulous.

The strength of journalists do is in the details. Making every effort to get information exactly right is the standard journalists must impose on themselves.

Those thoughts occurred to me as I was reading the report of the Detroit Free Press on its review of the work of sports columnist Mitch Albom. This excellent and highly popular writer got himself into trouble last month when he wrote a column that mentioned two National Basketball Association players who attended the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis. The column described what they wore when they were sitting in the stands.

The problem was that the players were never there.

Albom’s column was written before the event occurred. He had been told by the players that they were going to attend the game, but they changed their minds and didn’t go. Albom had to turn in the column on Friday for the Free Press’s Sunday edition. The column, which described events that had not yet occurred, passed through the hands of three editors, none of whom raised any questions about it.

After the column was published, the error was pointed out to the hierarchy of the newspaper and to Albom. The writer treated it lightly, calling the mistake “minute” on his radio show, but the criticism from the journalistic world was heavy and harsh. Allegations were raised that Albom had played fast and loose with his facts, his quotations and his attribution.

That set off a review of Albom’s work that resulted in the Free Press’s story, which was published on Monday, May 16.

The writers of the story are fairly kind to Albom, concluding that they found to “pattern of deception” in his work, but Albom condemns himself with his own words. One of the issues that arose was the use of quotations that Albom had not gathered himself and how those quotations were attributed. The following is a portion of that report:

In roughly five hours of interviews, Albom vigorously defended his integrity and approach. He said editors approved using quotes without attribution — which his sports editor acknowledged — and he said other columnists operate similarly around the country.

“I have never presented a non-attributed quote as something said personally to me — or something exclusive to me — and never would,” Albom said.

Albom argued that it is more important for columnists, who are given more leeway in the paper than other writers, to use quotes accurately than to identify where they came from. Moreover, he said, many of the quotes were widely disseminated in the national media before his columns ran, making it unnecessary to trace their origin

At times, quotes cited by Albom were worded slightly differently from how they appeared elsewhere in the media, with the quotes seeming to be livelier in some cases. Asked about those quotes, Albom insisted the passages were “essentially accurate.”

What comes through in this report are several troubling issues, including:

• Columnists – particularly stars like Albom – work under a different set of rules than reporters, and everybody knows it. Editors do not hold columnists to the same reportorial standards are they do their regular reporters.

• For the columnist, if attribution gets in the way of good writing, it can under some circumstances be discarded. The fact that doing so would leave the wrong impression with the reader – an impression that the writer was actually there when the quote was uttered – is troublesome but acceptable.

But the most troubling of all is Albom’s attitude toward changing a direct quotation to make it livelier. Albom says that’s ok if the quote is “essentially accurate.”

That is certainly not the message that those of us who teach writing want to send to our students.

Such is not the thinking of a meticulous reporter.

* * *

Much more about the Albom situation can be found at Poynter.org.

Jim Stovall (Posted May 17, 2005)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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