Communication Accuracy in Journalism
by
Colin Porlezza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0295

Introduction

Offering accurate reporting is at the heart of journalism practice. Accuracy is therefore a fundamental norm in the journalistic profession. It is closely related to other key concepts, such as objectivity, truthfulness, trust, and credibility. Its importance is also reflected in the weight that is given to the concept when it comes to media self-regulation, for instance in press councils’ regulations or codes of ethics. Even if accuracy developed out of the concept of objectivity, being therefore of Anglo-American origin, it has become a universal rule that transcends different journalistic cultures. It also allows journalism to be distinguished from works of fiction. Accuracy is also an important criteria to determine the quality of news reporting. Particularly in digital journalism, where the accelerated news cycle requires immediacy and fast publication, news outlets often adopt the strategy “publish first and verify second,” although research has shown that the accuracy of journalistic reporting and trustfulness are related. However, offering accurate reporting is easier said than done because it raises epistemological questions of whether and how journalism is actually capable of depicting reality accurately and truthfully. Nevertheless, accuracy plays an important role in terms of a fact-based journalistic discourse, since it forces journalists and editors to check whether the conveyed facts are true or not. Particularly in times of dis- and misinformation, implementing a thorough fact-checking process becomes paramount, not only to verify information, but also to tackle the further spread of fake news. Research finds that fact-checking can help to correct disinformation, and many online fact-checking and verification services have thus been launched—even if some studies suggest that fact-checking might not always be effective or that it can even backfire. Research into news accuracy can look back on a long history of studies that originated in the United States in 1936. Since then, accuracy research has become an established research strand in journalism studies that yields regular publications. However, most studies focus on newspapers and the Western world, while research from the Global South is generally lacking.

General Overview

The first paragraph of the Code of Ethics of the US Society of Professional Journalists reads as follows: “Journalists should: Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.” In almost all regulations and code of ethics, accuracy gets mentioned among the first few paragraphs, reflecting its centrality as a journalistic norm. However, this has not always been the case. Before the professionalization of journalism in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, publishers were not so much worried about “honest inaccuracies” that might occur in everyday reporting. They were far more concerned about those willfully fabricated inaccuracies that could both harm the readers and cause cases of litigation. As a concept, accuracy is closely related to objectivity, because it is seen as a constitutive element in the definition of objective reporting. In the author’s multidimensional definition of objectivity, Westerståhl 1983 refers to factuality as a central element, which means that journalistic reporting can be verified and checked against facts from the real world. Chalaby 1998 reinforces this perspective, stating that accuracy reinforces factuality because it implies the verification as well as the publication of facts. Chalaby describes journalism therefore as a “fact-based discursive practice.” Hence, as a central element of objectivity, accuracy played a central role in the professionalization of US journalism throughout the initial decades of the twentieth century. Generally, accuracy can be regarded as one of the most clearly stated values when it comes to journalists’ self-identification, as shown for instance by Shapiro, et al. 2016. The significance of accuracy gained even more traction in the 1920s, when fact-checking started to be institutionalized in newsrooms. In 1923, Time magazine established the first fact-checking service, checking facts for their accuracy and truthfulness. It is interesting to note that Time’s first fact-checkers were exclusively women. About twenty years later, the Hutchins Commission, officially named “Commission on Freedom of the Press,” which was supposed to address and tackle the growing financial problems faced by the press, declared in 1947 that newspapers should provide “a truthful, comprehensive account of the day’s events in a context, which gives them meaning.” As Riordan 2014 shows, today larger newsrooms often have specialized hubs or departments (or use algorithmic tools) with the task to verify facts and information, and, in addition, to check user-generated content from social media like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram against editorial standards.

  • Chalaby, J. 1998. The invention of journalism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230376175

    A central book that discusses the invention of journalism, and the fact that journalism is a specific type of discourse.

  • Commission on Freedom of the Press. 1947. A free and responsible press: A general report on mass communication: Newspapers, radio, motion pictures, magazines, and books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    The report discusses the overarching theme of press responsibility in the light of criticisms geared toward the economic orientation of newspapers.

  • Riordan, K. 2014. Accuracy, independence, and impartiality: How legacy media and digital natives approach standards in the digital age. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

    This Reuters Institute Fellow Paper discusses, based on interviews with industry experts, the question of which journalistic standards still fit in this digital age.

  • Shapiro, I., C. Brin, P. Spoel, and L. Marshall. 2016. Images of essence: Journalists discourse on the professional discipline of verification. Canadian Journal of Communication 41.1: 37–48.

    DOI: 10.22230/cjc.2016v41n1a2929

    This article consists of a rhetorical analysis of interviews with award-winning newspaper reporters in order to understand what kind of norms are essential to journalists’ professional identity. The contribution confirms that accuracy is still regarded as a central norm.

  • Society of Professional Journalists. 2014. SPJ Code of ethics. Indianapolis: Society of Professional Journalists.

    This code is an example of a code of ethics where accuracy is mentioned very early on in the “Seek Truth and Report It” paragraph, confirming its centrality when it comes to journalistic norms.

  • Westerståhl, J. 1983. Objective news reporting: General premises. Communication Research 10.3: 403–424.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365083010003007

    Westerståhl’s article offers a conceptual lense on what objectivity in journalism means. It is an early theoretical analysis of the concept of objectivity, breaking it down into major components such as factuality and impartiality.

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