The recent popularity of E. L. James' erotic novel 50 Shades of Gray brought a potentially taboo sexual topic out of the bedroom and into the American mainstream. However, in the newsroom, the idea that there are "shades of accuracy" continues to be a topic that, if not legally off-limits, is still often considered taboo. But on occasion, it is crucial that professionals and educators reexamine topics that are not always comfortable.
In the strictest sense, dictionaries define something as accurate when it is "careful and exact, free from mistakes or errors; precise."1 While touted as "the most important characteristic of any story, great or small, long or short"2 the Missouri Group's journalism textbook actually fails to define accuracy in specificity and instead couches exploration of the concept as part of a discussion of fairness. (The word "accuracy"also fails to appear in the text's glossary.)
Perhaps the most lauded quote on accuracy is Bob Woodward's career-influenced suggestion that in seeking accuracy, reporters are trying to convey "the best obtainable version of the truth." This version is also compatible with Kovach and Rosenstiel's statement that "Journalism's first obligation is to the truth" and their caveat that while the need for truth in journalism is unanimous, it is also confusing, because "everyone agrees that journalists must tell the truth, yet people are befuddled about what ‘the truth’ means."3
In 2011, I had the privilege of talking with several senior editors, some currently working and some retired, about what it means to be "accurate" or "truthful." Arguably, with the SPJ code mandate that journalists "test accuracy," what professionals mean when they say "something is accurate" warrants ongoing discussion.
I spoke to editing legends such as Bill Connolly, editor of The New York Times Guide to Style and Gene Foreman, former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of The Ethical Journalist, and current editors such as Peggy Bellows, who runs one of the newer editing centers, Media General's Consolidated Editing Center, which handles The Tampa Tribune, The Winston Salem Journal and The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and George Stanley at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As a part of a larger project that looked at handling errors online, I asked them to define the word "accuracy." Here are a few examples of what accuracy and truth mean to these professionals.
Gene Foreman said, "It means, first of all, getting the facts right. And we're trying to strive for the truth… We know that truth is in the eyes of the beholder." He said that truth can be subjective and he used the journalism term "objectivity" as a point of comparison. Foreman suggested that to be objective is to be detached and avoid adding personal perspective, but reporting also requires context and sifting through information from a variety of sources. As information is gathered, reporters have to make choices as to what to include, which is a subjective process. Foreman also cited the relationship between fairness and accuracy and noted that accuracy exists in context. He said, "So we're trying to replicate truth, as, the best that we can possibly do from a human standpoint, as a human being, a flawed human being, to try to replicate what actually happened and that means you cast your web wide to get sources all over, get different perspectives on the facts."
While Foreman focused on facts and the subjectivity of truth, Bill Connolly noted that there are some absolutes. He said, "I guess it means precision. I guess there are contexts in which it would mean somewhat different things, you know. There are, say mathematical contexts where a thing is either right or wrong. There [are] no gray areas. There are other areas in politics and society where, to some degree, accuracy is in the eye of the beholder. People have different opinions of accuracy. In those cases you struggle to, to try to satisfy both groups—that is not to dismiss what some readers might regard as true. That's a matter of judgment."
George Stanley argued that accuracy requires substantiation. He said, "Accuracy is, of course, getting the facts right and that means anything that can be factually verified, so that would be everything from names and addresses to factual information that could be supported by documents or evidence." But, he also raised the idea of how the presentation of information can affect its perceived accuracy. He said, "It would also mean, in my opinion, accuracy would mean fairly portraying arguments, describing arguments. Like, for example, in [coverage of] a political debate, there can be subtle forms of what I consider inaccurate reporting where a reporter quotes one [candidate]'s really eloquent position on the side of an issue and someone not so eloquent on the other side."
Like Bill Connolly, Peggy Bellows said that to her there are some things that are just "right" such as simple math and the spelling of a United States' president’s name. But she acknowledged how vague the concept of accuracy can really be, saying, "There's a whole realm of the world that is gray. It's not black, it's not white. What is accurate… is influenced by many different things, you know, by your perspective, by your allegiances, alliances, your objectivities or whatever." She said that describing something as right and wrong can be too simple, and that being accurate can be several different things, but what is important is that a reasonable person would say that the article was a fair representation of the truth.
I also received contributions defining "accuracy" from media ethicists Bob Steele and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute. Steele is also the Phyllis W. Nicholas Director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics and distinguished professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University.
McBride suggested that accuracy is something that happens through practicing journalism. She said, "Accuracy comes... through practice of the craft, particularly the craft of reporting, but in the broadest sense of the word, so there are best practices for...how to make sure you're spelling someone's name right, there are best practices for interviewing eyewitnesses to an event. There are best practices for taking notes, and it is the sum total of those best practices that leads to an accurate report."
Steele also supported the concept that accuracy does not exist in a vacuum. He said, "Accuracy applies to both the facts of a particular story and the context of a particular story. The obligation of the journalist to tell a story that is as truthful as possible in terms of that factual information and the meaning of that factual information in the larger context of that particular story. So I think of it as accuracy on one side of a coin and authenticity on the other side of the coin. They both have to be on the coin. You cannot have a story that is just factually accurate, it has to be contextually authentic and a story that is contextually authentic has to have factual accuracy."
Notice that editors used terms such as "eye of the beholder" and "shades of gray," thus acknowledging the subjectivity of what it means to be accurate. None used scientific terms such as "validity" and "reliability." While this may seem obvious to more seasoned professionals, it's important revisit the topic on occasion and especially to raise it as a point of discussion with younger journalists and students who may be struggling by being locked in a definition of accuracy that is too confining to hold all the shades of truth in the human experience.