This ethics essay was written as a party of my journalism capstone class at the University of Missouri, Journalism and Democracy. We were tasked with writing about an issue presented in one of the chapters of The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. I chose to write about verification in journalism.
Verification in the news media
Of the chapters of “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, the one that resonated with me the most was chapter four, which addressed the issue of verification. Verification deals with a number of elements, most namely fact checking and ensuring that the tone of the article and the way a person’s ideas are conveyed through their quotes. When an article has been verified, we can know that what we are telling readers is true and that it is telling it in a way that will not mislead or misrepresent.
When I think of verification, I think of copy editing. As an aspiring copy editor, I realize the importance of verification, and how large a part of the copy editor’s job it is. In my time at the journalism school, I have been told that copy editors are the last line of defense for a news organization. They are generally the last ones that see an article before it is published and, as such, are the last ones who have a chance to correct mistakes, misspellings, bad grammar or whatever problem there may be. If a mistake gets through them, it’s out there for all to see.
When I was at the ICE (interactive copy editing) desk at the Missourian during the first semester of my senior year, I encountered my fair share of mistakes. Most were small mistakes, like missing commas or other grammar errors, but there were the occasional more glaring fact error or name misspelling. There were even the occasional errors in articles from publications like the Associated Press. In one of the first articles I edited while on the ICE desk, I found a name that was spelled incorrectly in a sports article. All it took to realize the mistake was to quickly do a Google search of the player’s name, and yet it was still published incorrectly the first time around.
There is a problem when a mistake that is so easily corrected or avoided is still made. It takes just one person searching a name one time to make sure that it is not misspelled. If verification is such an easy process at times, why is it not always executed properly? This is a large problem that journalism is facing. Even when there are copy editors in place to make sure that everything in an article is verified before it gets published there are still mistakes that make it through. Are journalists not being thorough enough in their copy editing? If that is the case, there needs to be something done to ensure that that does not continue. We need to be looking over articles with a fine tooth comb whenever possible. Letting these types of mistakes continue to get through is not acceptable. It’s unsure whether the Associated Press article had been properly fact checked before it was published, but, if it were, that makes it all the more worrying.
I have seen quite a few problems as well when news organizations have been rushing to get breaking news out first. I have seen misspellings, grammar errors and fact errors, sometimes even in the first sentence of an article.
Even when a news organization is rushed to push breaking news through as fast as possible, that does not mean that there’s any reason to forgo a thorough verification of the article. Yes, that may mean that the article is not the first one to break, but it would be preferable to publish a slightly later article that has all of the correct facts. Readers will be able to see which news organizations made mistakes and which ones did not, and I would like to think that the readers would prefer to read from an organization that verifies.
Another instance from the ICE desk that stuck with me was editing a story about a local run. The article itself was not bad, but I noticed immediately that there were no marks for accuracy checks or quote checks anywhere on the article. When I attempted to check the event’s website for information, I could not find most of the facts reported in the article. I called the reporter to find out if they had accuracy checked everything they never called me back. After waiting and receiving no response, the article had to be rewritten around the information we could not verify. The article that we ended up publishing was not as good as it could have been, but we had no choice because we had to make sure that the information in it was correct and verified.
Probably the biggest mistake I had found on the ICE desk, and the one that concerned me the most, was in a graphic. We were given graphics to look at on occasion, and one that I had to look at was on first-time college students. At first glance everything looked all right. There were some small AP style errors in the summary, but the numbers lined up. When I went to check the numbers, however, I realized that something didn’t add up. None of the numbers in the graphic matched up to the source data. I ended up figuring out that the graphics artist had used data for first-generation college students, not first-time college students. The two categories sounded similar, but were entirely different things. I was able to alert the graphics artist to the mistake, and they were able to fix the graphic.
The lack of accuracy checking in the article and the incorrect data used in the graphic were both big mistakes, and highlights just how important it is to have copy editor, or at least someone who can verify. I was able to find and correct the mistakes before anything was published. When there is someone there to check the facts and to do so thoroughly they are fairly easily avoided. It’s just a matter of having the person there to do the copy editing and having the rules in place to make sure that the verification happens. Sometimes, however, news organizations don’t have that.
During the summer between my junior and seniors years of college, I had a small internship at a local paper in my hometown. The paper was small, having started that year. I was a reporter for them, writing primarily on local events. I went to the events, did my reporting, wrote my articles and emailed them to the editor. A simple process.
Something that bothered me, however, was that when I turned the articles in, I was never once asked if I had verified anything in the articles. Not the facts, names, quotes or anything. The editor simply took my articles, did a bit of editing to them where needed and they were published.
While I had made sure to check everything in my articles before submitting them, it would have been so easy for something incorrect to slip through. With how many mistakes are made in journalism, and how frighteningly easy it seems to make them, it seems ignorant to not verify.
It is worrying when a journalism organization seems to not care about verification, even when it’s smaller. Verification is too important a part of journalism to disregard it. When a news organization is new and trying to build itself, would it not want to make sure that everything it published is verified? Losing readers because of an easily fixed mistake so early after it formed could be a death sentence. Even larger organization would suffer from not having copy editors in place. They too would suffer from losing readers over a mistake, even if it were not as much as a smaller organization. More so, the issue there would be losing credibility. No organization, in particular larger organizations, wants to lose their credibility, and they especially would not want to lose it over something that is so easy to avoid. Having copy editors or at least someone to verify prevents, or at least helps to prevent, this from happening.
The process of verification is incredibly important to journalism, yet there sometimes seems to be a lack of it in journalism today. Journalists and news organizations need to make sure that they have measures in place to ensure verification of their articles. We cannot do out first service, to serve the people, if we cannot verify the information that we provide to them.