One of the biggest challenges in the news business is gathering facts and putting them together to form a story.
Imagine if you had to write a research paper every day by 5 p.m.
Scary thought, isn’t it?
Well, it’s not scary for journalists, because that’s what we do. And we love our jobs.
Here at The Commercial, we always strive for accuracy in reporting. However, we sometimes make mistakes, as all newspapers do. We own up to them and correct them.
We thought we’d take a moment to explain how misinformation can find its way into a story. It can happen because a reporter misheard something a source told them. It can also happen because a source told them the wrong information.
The latter scenario happens more often than you would think. Even so, the newspaper is still responsible for the mistake in the minds of many people. In our defense, we cannot always know if someone is telling us information that isn’t completely factual.
We know that most sources don’t intentionally give the wrong information, it’s just that sometimes, especially when dealing with complex civic issues, there may be several sets of facts that are constantly in flux, such as the cost of a building project.
Additionally, when dealing with certain other organizations, such as police departments, there is only one person who gives out facts. That person is generally the public information officer or, in some cases, the chief him or herself.
Let’s say that an accident occurs on a busy intersection in the city. A reporter heads to the scene to take photographs and gather basic information. The public information officer tells the reporter that two cars were involved and one person was taken to the hospital.
That information is then transferred to readers via the newspaper’s website, print edition and social media.
Soon after the story hits the readers’ eyes, a person calls the newspaper and identifies themselves as a person who was in a third car that was involved in the accident. The third car had been towed away before the reporter arrived at the scene, and there was no information about a third car given to the reporter by the police department at the time of the accident.
We know that there was certainly no intention of the part of the police to misinform the public, it’s just that in the confusion of the scene, the fact about the third car was omitted.
But the person in the third car then begins to accuse the newspaper of “always getting things wrong.”
Of course, that statement is false.
A newspaper can only print the facts it is given. There are follow-ups to stories, but once misinformation is spread, all the corrections in the world can’t take back the initial impression that the newspaper “got it wrong,” even though it was not our intention, and even though we were given incorrect information.
We are not blaming any one single person for incorrect information that appears in this or any other publication. Information gathering is a complex process that can sometimes be disrupted due to the confusion of a fluid scene, such as the accident scenario described above. That’s why you sometimes notice at the end of a story or photo caption the words “this incident is still under investigation” or “as of press time, this is all the information officials were releasing.”
That is a way to tell readers that the story will likely change. But in our business, the paper has to go to press at a certain time, so we can’t always wait for the most recent updates. A followup, however, will be likely.
It is our job to do the best we can to find out the truth. Moreover, it’s our duty to you, the reader. And we can assure you that’s what we do each and every day, despite the critics who think we “always get it wrong.”