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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Education Toolbox

The truth be told, I hope this is accurate

By Mac McKerral

Truth remains the journalistic trump card, and accuracy is the foundation for truth. So my teaching involves trying to get students to value truth and accuracy.

During the past few weeks, several truth and accuracy threads have cropped up for me. Sewing these threads together entails connecting “old journalism” and “new journalism.”

When it comes to accuracy and the larger goal of truth telling, there is no difference.

My news editing class gets an exercise in fact checking. The class must vet 10 “facts.” Students also must explain how they verified accuracy. The students do not do well. That’s a fact.

The class assignment thread connects with a Q-and-A with Steve Coll, journalist and author. In a Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy “research chat,” Coll refers to the “fact-checking movement.”

My first reaction: “Is there a fact-checking movement?”

So, I did what my students would do, a Google search: “fact-checking movement.” It drew 28.1 million hits, including an article posted the day before I wrote this column from the American Journalism Review with the headline, “The Fact-Checking Explosion.”

How did I miss a “movement” much less an “explosion,” I thought.

Meanwhile, Coll talks about process with regard to achieving accuracy and truth, a process that takes time.

Coll’s words: “(Journalists) have to do that ping-pong thing: You have to talk to people and ask about what to read, then read, and then go back and talk with more people. You have to go back and forth.”

Yes, achieving truth and accuracy often requires taking time, and that is not a world journalists and journalism students live in. That’s a fact.

The Coll thread connects to another Shorenstein Center research chat with Alison Head, executive director of Project Information Literacy, who studies how students find and use information in the digital age. Her words: “Yet, these online searching techniques are simply not enough. As we face the challenges of educating today’s students, we need to recognize that not all learning solutions are found online — and never will be. In the race to bring ever more technology into the classroom, we need to dial back and make sure students are also being taught old-school methods of communication and research that were second nature to previous generations.”

Yes, sometimes accuracy and truth are more easily discovered using “old school” techniques that as educators we might overlook or even abandon in the name of “digitalism.” That’s a fact.

The thread from Alison Head connects to a Jan. 4 op-ed piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal by Edward Wasserman, Washington and Lee University Knight Professor of Journalism and Ethics. Wasserman wrote about the initial reporting on the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and a “movement,” yes, an “explosion” of which I am very familiar: the strong influence of social media on reporting and its effect on accuracy and truth.

Wasserman details a series of errors in the reporting on Sandy Hook passed along as “fact” via a combination of social media culling and pack journalism.

His words: “Of course, there’s nothing surprising about getting critical facts wrong in the early stages of breaking stories. But it’s worth asking whether such errors have become more, rather than less, tolerable among news people, as the velocity of reporting rises.” That’s a fact.

I’ll close this sewing session with three photocopies I found while rummaging through an oversized folder labeled “Editing Tips” from a file cabinet in my office. One was an editorial published in the Christian Science Monitor in November 1989, “On the Importance of Getting It Right.”

The writer’s words: “Getting the story right is crucial to the safety and preservation of the society we all share.”

That’s a fact.

Next comes a portion of a speech given in December 1968 by Norman H. Isaacs — at the time executive editor of the Courier-Journal — who deplored the number of errors published in his newspaper.

His words: “ ... and this is a good newspaper ... we do a lot of good things, but what we are tolerating ... is incompetency.” That’s a fact.

And finally, the million-dollar question for journalism teachers: “How do you teach accuracy?” a column written for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1982 by Roger Tatarian, former United Press International editor-in- chief and at the time he wrote it, a teacher at the University of California-Fresno.

He wrote about a classroom assignment.

Each student gives a speech, which is reported by the other students in class. The speech-giver reads all the stories and then tells the class how it did. The reporters didn’t do very well. That’s a fact.

Tatarian’s words: “Only when young reporters see their own thoughts come back to them in often wondrous form do they really appreciate the great difficulty in acting as a faithful intermediary.”

That’s a fact, too.

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