By JACKIE HONG
Getting the facts right can make or break a journalist’s credibility, and with users of social media there to catch and expose every slip-up, journalists in Canada and around the world are held to higher levels of accountability than ever before. While there are no guidelines on how statements and statistics should be verified, a new study has found that journalists apply different fact-checking methods for different kinds of information.
The findings help clarify what “verification” means to different journalists, said Ryerson School of Journalism chair Ivor Shapiro, one of the study’s authors.
“Clearly, getting things right continues to be a core value for reporters, but we now understand more clearly that different kinds of fact are verified to different extents and in different ways,” Shapiro wrote in an email. “It may have a scientific-sounding name, but in reality, as we reported, verification is a ‘discipline of compromise’ for reporters.”
“Verification as a Strategic Ritual: How journalists retrospectively describe processes for ensuring accuracy” was published in the February issue of Journalism Practice. The study was produced by Shapiro, Colette Brin of Laval University and their research assistants, Kasia Mychajlowycz (Ryerson MJ 2013) and Isabelle Bedard-Brule.
The results were based on interviews with 28 journalists from prominent newspapers in Ontario and Quebec who shared their experiences on what information they typically chose to verify, and how that was done. During each interview, the journalists were asked about what measures they usually take to ensure accuracy in reporting, followed by detailed questions about an article they had written, such as how names, locations, stories and numbers had been verified. The journalists were also asked how factors like time constraints affected the thoroughness of fact-checking. Finally, they were asked to give their opinions on the statement, “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification,” made popular by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their landmark book, The Elements of Journalism (2001/2007).
Several trends emerged from the interviews. All the journalists interviewed said they always checked to make sure that sources’ names were spelled correctly, and did this by asking sources to spell their names either before or after an interview. As well, some cross-checked name spelling against public records or websites before submitting an article. They said they viewed a misspelled name “as a very visible error that can have implications for professional credibility,” the study said.
Other regularly checked facts were locations, including street names, building numbers and distances between two places. In these cases, the journalists used everything from online maps to actual location visits, and more “informal” methods like estimating the time it would take to walk from one point to another, to verify statements. Quotes were also among the top things that the journalists say they always ensure are accurate.
“Many participants expressed some variation of, ‘Quotes are sacrosanct for me; I do everything to make sure they’re 100 per cent,’” the study said, noting that all the journalists said they either recorded every interview or took hand-written notes so that quotes could be cross-checked later.
On the other end of the spectrum, the journalists said that things like a subject’s personal history (if told by the subject themselves), reconstructed dialogue and background information usually aren’t cross-checked unless a statement is extremely controversial or has the potential to be libellous.
“‘I have no reason not to believe . . . [the account of the conversation],’” one of the journalists said when asked why they were comfortable with only using one source to recreate a scene.
Not all aspects of a story are as tightly examined for accuracy as the names of sources, several journalists said. As well, because of newsroom budget cuts, there are now fewer copy editors to catch mistakes, and “reporters [are] being increasing relied upon ‘as kind of the first and only line of defence on accuracy,’” one journalist said.
The study also found that the journalists see primary documents, especially for legal cases or scientific studies, as the most reliable sources of information.
The study’s authors said they hope to continue their research by looking into whether personal factors about the journalists themselves, such as age, language or status within the world of media, have an impact on how much verification is done and which methods are used,
The study was recently featured in a Poynter article.