When news reporters get it wrong

The print version of the article hit the newsstands the day after the interview. The digital version was live only hours after the reporter wrapped up her questions.

My kind of reporting — immediate. But with that kind of turnaround also comes the potential for mistakes.

I knew the potential so I carefully pointed out the misunderstandings made by other reporters earlier in the day, but she made other errors.

And I will admit it was frustrating to see my name in print as having said something I did not say and having described something in words I would never use.

Plus everyone personally acquainted with the story knew what was incorrect in the article, so my pride kicked in because I feared they wouldn’t know it was a reporting error and would think it was my mistake.

I had a decision to make. Would I contact the reporter and yell at her or would I think about the situation calmly and be part of the solution rather than create more havoc?

Being a journalist and knowing what it is like to be on the other side of the situation, I decided to be part of the solution.

Yes, she made mistakes in the reporting, so she needed to correct the information.

That’s where I started.

Correcting the facts

I emailed her to thank her for covering the story and turning it around so quickly. I also noted that I understand the difficulty of trying to grasp every angle of a story in a matter of about 30 minutes, then write a story on it in less than two hours.

It is similar to being assigned a research topic in school — something you are not personally familiar with — and having to crank out a summary of the most important points of the topic in a few hours.

Yes, those who carry the reporter title have (or should have) been trained to do the job and are more versatile than most to know which parts of the story are vital and which can be left out. But it is still a tremendous amount of pressure to reconcile in your own mind what exactly the story is and then to relay all the points with perfect factual accuracy.

Focusing on the facts

And you also have the challenge of knowing for sure who the expert is on the subject and who isn’t as well as working to keep the source on topic so you don’t get distracted with unnecessary pieces of information.

Print journalists have an advantage over broadcast journalists because they have a little more time to verify the facts of the story and work to gain a better understanding, but in all news reporting cases, time is extremely limited.

My recent personal experience with being misquoted reminded me of how grateful I am when those we report on in Baptist life take the time to provide information for us in advance so we have a better chance of reporting accurately.

It also helps to have the basic who, what, when, where, why and how spelled out in a fact sheet or news release of some sort to save us time chasing down those basic bits of information.

I also realize how all of us can improve our communication in general by remembering that those outside our bubbles cannot understand the parts of the stories we are living at the same level we do. Using slang terms makes for insider language others might misinterpret. Leaving out important details or making assumptions also causes confusion.

Telling our stories clearly and succinctly — and showing a bit of grace — goes a long way for the greater good.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

15 thoughts on “When news reporters get it wrong

  1. Jennifer,
    There is no small amount of frustration when we are personally misquoted or false information is given about us. I have personally dealt with this myself. A few years ago, I offered commentary for a local news reporter concerning a decision that I made as Pastor. The reporter edited my comments in a way that did not provide my full thoughts and actions concerning the matter. I have come to the realization that we live in a world of TMZ-like journalism and have left the world of Woodward and Bernstein. I appreciate your calm and compassionate reaction to having been personally misrepresented. Great post!

    Greg Walker

    • Thanks so much, Greg. You are correct in that journalists are pressured to get the story out first and capture people’s attention in order to gain readership/viewership even if that means missing the mark on accuracy.

  2. There are a few concerns I have with modern day reporting, the biggest is that reporters no longer have to wait to publish and report. When I grew up, which was not that long ago, journalists had to wait until the nightly news or the morning edition of the newspaper, unless one worked for CNN. Now with the growth of cable news and the Internet there are more opportunities and I’m not sure these opportunities are a good thing. In previous times people had to vet and fact check their material because they had to wait anyway. Now news is even more about ratings, links clicked, and social media shares. In other words, I believe the quality of our journalism had decreased as the editorials are now passed off as “news” when it’s not.

    Granted I know my previous paragraph may seem old fashioned, but previous restraints were great checks and balances. That said, I still think there is a place for blogs, web media, and even cable news. However, I think we should strive towards an understanding that not all sources are equal and determine what tiers we value each form of media. Sadly, society I believe sees many forms of media as the same when people are really performing confirmation bias. Rather, let’s get back to unbiased journalism that’s slow to report and quick towards the truth. I guess it’s why when someone asked Tim Keller how he keeps up with all of the media on the internet he replied, “I read the next day’s news. If it is important and factual enough to make it into limited print than it’s worth my time.”

    His approach is something to think on.

    • You have addressed a very important concern for many journalists who understand the importance of their role, which is to sort through the massive amount of information flowing freely and determine what is accurate and what are the true facts. It is from there the journalists should report the news for their audiences, so the general population can work from a truthful foundation of information. This is an important and needed service.

      Unfortunately the level of competition among media outlets, the 24/7 news cycle and constant need for new information, the demand and pressure of an immediate reporting of the news, and the fact that anyone can be a journalist with social media and blogs has changed the nature of the reports.

      The general public must demand a solid, trustworthy role from their media outlets and remember why the media exists — not to serve as one group’s mouthpiece but to truthfully and accurately report the news. If a particular media reports from a certain perspective such as The Alabama Baptist (a biblical perspective), then it should be open and upfront about that so the reader knows through which lens the news is being reported.

      And the general public really has to step up and take responsibility for the items being shared as fact over social media. A lot of confusion and misunderstanding of the truth takes place every day because people are failing to vet their sources and choosing to pass information along that has not been confirmed by a trustworthy source.

      I like Keller’s perspective because he is correct that the truly important and factual news items will survive beyond 24 hours and will be part of the print publications. Thanks for sharing.

      • The key is as we have both alluded towards is that society must learn and value the ability to “vet” sources. As the old adage goes, “you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube” at this point, no matter how much I prefer it if we could. However, if we could encourage and teach others what quality sources are or even the nature of a source then we would all be better informed. As I read your reply, even, I think that blogs, secondary news sites, or media sites could then point others towards issues they otherwise would not know about. Again though, sites like these should point others towards unbiased information lest people continue the confirmation biases and mistaking editorials as news.

        Lastly, some of it should come down to ethics. For example, there is one news reporter who writes for a prominent Cable News website. Frequently he posts articles about how “Christianity is being oppressed” in one sphere or another. He loves to write articles about this oppression in the military. However, as an Army Chaplain I can objectively say that he does not report all of the facts. There are lots of nuance and other backgrounds behind much of the “reporting” he does. However, often he only reports the sensational part of the story that fits his editorial because that’s really what his pieces are when published. As a result, he misleads and excites people in a way that I believe is dishonest and devoid of ethics. So the solutions are two fold; first, he needs to be more ethical in his writing and reporting and inform readers that he is writing editorials as he writes in a way that maintains the grey area that keeps the confusion in practice. Second, readers need to learn the difference between editorials, unbiased reporting, and how to weigh sources. The former we can’t change – as I’ve even had a personal conversation with the national reporter at a conference a few years ago and he would not listen – the latter we can change by teaching and informing as many people who will listen, so let’s do what we can.

  3. Once I interviewed several people who had first-hand knowledge of a subject that I was researching. When I consolidated the information for print, I mistakenly gave credit to the wrong person. Thankfully, the person who provided the information was gracious when she pointed out the error. As a result of that experience, I learned to ask for permission to record interviews so that I can verify what I thought I heard, and also to ask the person who provided the information to proof it before it goes to print. As the one who made the mistake, I can appreciate the calm approach that you took with the one who misquoted you.

    • I’m so glad the source was gracious with you as well. It always helps to have been on the other side of a situation — to walk in someone else’s shoes, so to speak — when situations like this arise. In fact, I try to remember to apply that strategy to all parts of life, remembering it is highly unusual a person purposefully wanted to make whatever mistake was made or fail to meet the agreed-upon goal.

      And nice job learning from your experience. You thought through what happened and determined a way that works for you to prevent it from happening in the future.

  4. Print journalists do have an advantage over broadcast journalists because they have a little more time to verify the facts of the story. One of my favorite local news anchors lost their job for something similar to this. There was an altercation at city hall between the mayor and a councilman. The reporter reported that the councilman had turned himself in to the city jail, but he in fact was not at the city jail. While at the jail, the reporter encountered a bail bondsman and two other people. The reporter asked if they were there to pick up the councilman and they replied yes. She asked them a second time and their answer was the same, however they were not there to pick up the councilman. Apparently, the councilman and the inmate had the same first name and the three people there to pick him up didn’t hear the last name. The councilman had not been to the jail and was not there at the time the reporter broke the story. The reporter didn’t have an opportunity to check the facts of the story and as a result, she was dismissed from her job.

  5. This was actually an interesting article. But it made me think not just about writing, reporting, and detail gathering – it made me think about relationships. It is extremely important in relationships to listen, hear, and re-iterate information and conversations accurately, otherwise there is room for tension in the relationship. In my job as Personnel Evaluation Specialist, I present often. Part of the quality of presentations happens when the audience asks questions. Being able to properly hear the questions, interpret the request, then provide the accurate response is always key. Additionally, being able to react appropriately when the response is not what the audience member needs OR their response demonstrates that they did not interpret the initial information correctly. Exactly what you noted has helped me diffuse anxiety and misunderstandings – listen carefully, correct and focus only on the facts. This very often deflects an audience member’s anxiety or disagreement, because the conversation does not become personal. There are so many reasons people misinterpret or misrepresent the information provided to them. Keeping my personal feelings out of the response, has actually helped me to gain a true amount of trust with my clientele.

    • Thank you for taking this concept to its fullest extent of communication in general. You are so right about how information gets misunderstood and people miss an opportunity to truly hear each other when emotions get in the way.

  6. I didn’t realize how important communication was until I entered the professional world. It’s more than just a good skill to have — it’s vital. So often how we say something is twice as important as what we say, and our intentions behind our words have a big impact on how the message comes out and how it is received.

    Thank you for sharing this example of grace-filled communication. It’s a great example of how to handle miscommunication in a Christ-like way and be a witness in every situation because showing grace when someone else is wrong is the opposite of what our nature wants to do.

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