Readers' Editor: The first priority for any news story is to get it right
Accuracy. It’s a small word — with very large connotations. The Belfast Telegraph has signed up to the principle; which means that it should be in the paper’s soul — in its very DNA — to treat facts as sacred.
Of course, newspapers, and all daily media, are written in a hurry, and haste is no friend of accuracy.
Journalism is, it is often said, the ‘first rough draft of history’. This is because historical examination of news stories, particularly those relating to major events, often reveals the need for further revision of the fundamentals of the event. Particularly in these days of spin.
But let’s stop there for a moment.
How important is accuracy for journalists?
The sceptical among you will be chuckling by this stage as papers do sometimes — often — get things wrong.
The answer is: extremely important. Accuracy as a principle is deemed meritorious enough to be the first point in the Editors’ Code of Practice , to which the Belfast Telegraph and all of the UK’s proper newspapers sign up.
The first line exhorts the Press “not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures’’.
The code continues: “A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published.’’
The Editors’ Code is very clear, then, that significant inaccuracies, or statements which mislead or distort, are anathema to good reporting. Significantly, unlike many other parts of the code, there is no public interest exemption to this clause. So, if you see inaccuracies in this newspaper, you have every right to complain — and we have a duty to set them straight.
I do draw a distinction between major inaccuracies and/or distortions and relatively minor ones. The paper will correct minor factual errors as well when they are drawn to its attention.
However, the former require full investigation as well as correction.
I state the above because two accuracy issues arose last week. We managed to report incorrectly a statement from Stormont minister Alex Attwood in a story on Disability Living Allowance.
The minister was reported as saying the Social Security Agency and others “haven’t placed in anti-fraud measures.” It should have read that they “have in place a lot of anti-fraud measures that are successful”.
I am happy to report that a correction appeared immediately after the issue was drawn to the attention of the newsdesk.
The mangled quote should not, of course, have made it through our checking procedures without someone raising a query.
The Department of Social Development was quite right to complain.
On another matter relating to accuracy, reader Robert Mawhinney writes about an error in an obituary.
Our tribute to Dr D B McNeill had correctly summarised his excellent academic career and a personal life marked by a commitment to public service. All the details in the obituary were, as far as I am aware, perfectly accurate — except one.
Unfortunately, he was described as a ‘physician’, rather than a ‘physicist’, an error for which our correspondent passes on his humble apologies.
And which should also, incidentally, have been picked up in the editing process.
All errors are unfortunate, but I happen to believe that errors in obituaries are particularly so due to the sensitivities of grief and death.
I will, therefore, be reminding staff to be doubly on guard when performing checks on obituaries in future.