MC 102: Thoughts on accuracy

One of the four tenants of media writing is accuracy (the other three: completeness, precision and efficiency), and we say that accuracy is primary.

But media professionals don’t always achieve accuracy. And inaccuracy can arise in places where we least expect it.

The Tuscaloosa News recently (January 2000) contained a couple of serious inaccuracies — things the newspaper should have caught before they got into print. One occurred on Saturday, Jan. 22, with the top headline on page 1:

Siegelman doesn’t make his kids say ‘yes sir’

Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman has proposed a law requiring students to show respect for their teachers. One way of doing this is to have them say “ma’am” and “sir.”

The headline implies Seigelman wants to require something of the state’s school kids that he doesn’t require of his own children. The story, however, quotes Siegelman as saying he doesn’t require his kids to say “ma’am” and “sir” because they do it anyway. “Fortunately,” he said, “we don’t have to (require it).”

If we are to believe the story, the implication of the headline is clearly inaccurate.

A much more obvious inaccuracy occurred in the News earlier that week (Wednesday, Jan. 19). On page B1, the paper ran the headline:

Grandson revives the memory of Confederate general

The headline ran beside a picture of two men shaking hands. Both looked middle aged, between 40 and 60 years old. Because the Civil War occurred in the 1860s, nearly 140 years ago, it did not seem reasonable that either man was the grandson of a Confederate general.

The headline was wrong.

The story identified one of the men as the great-grandson of Confederate General Jeb Stuart. The headline writer — who on most newspapers is a different person than the one who writes the story — misunderstood the story or was too lazy to make it accurate.

Or worse, the headline writer didn’t think it made any difference. For people who try to promote professionalism in the media, that’s scary.

You might expect errors to occur in a local daily newspaper, but in books? Books are among the most permanent records we have. They have the aura of complete legitimacy. We think if something is in a book, it must have been thoroughly checked by competent people.

That’s not always the case.

The February 2000 issue of Brill’s Content, a magazine of media criticism, contains a set of articles about the accuracy books. One article tells the story of a biography of George W. Bush, the leading Republican presidential contender, that was published by St. Martin’s Press, a leading New York publisher. The book was pulled by St. Martin’s — after it had published and distributed — when the press discovered some of the most sensational allegations had not been checked out thoroughly by the author.

Two additional articles talk about recent books that have contained serious inaccuracies (and some that don’t) and the way in which books are scrutinized by editors.

Fascinating and sobering reading.

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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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