4 ways a news story can get screwed up (by accident)

There is definitely some truth in the adage that you can’t believe everything you see in the news. You have probably found a story recently that has been misconstrued in some way by the media: details are wrong, quotes are jumbled or the whole thing simply doesn’t make sense. It can be a jarring experience because even as technology has enabled people to publish whatever they want online, we still trust the news media to deliver accurate and timely accounts of what happens in the world every day.

Seeing the media misreport a story can feel like a breach of that trust, but more often than not, there is no malicious intent to mislead or deceive. (That doesn’t mean that’s never the case, but diving into media ethics and corporatized news ownership is a topic best left for another article.)

So how is it, even with the noblest intentions, the task of reporting a story can go awry?

Based on my own experience in a newsroom and discussions with friends who work in the industry, here are some of the ways it can happen…

1. Journalists are not always experts on the subjects they’re covering

today-i-am-an-expert-in(Cartoon from Washington Post, 1993)

Many years ago, when traditional offline advertising was much more lucrative because it didn’t have to compete with the internet, media organizations had the funds to keep their newsrooms very well-staffed. There was one reporter (or more) assigned to every beat, covering stories relating to crime, sports, court cases, fashion, cars, business, government and more.

That’s no longer the case. These days, the reporters who have survived repeated rounds of layoffs are each typically spread across several beats depending on what news needs to be covered on a given day. The “general assignment” journalists will often have to switch gears several times in the run of a work week to write about subjects as varied as city council meetings, local crime sprees and charity fundraisers. The result is that while the local news must still be covered as thoroughly as possible, the job is spread among fewer people, and those people are being asked to do more than ever before.

Most people in the working world must be knowledgeable about many things to do their jobs, but journalists routinely have mere hours become experts on the subjects they cover. In the course of interviewing the actual experts, reporters must consider the information they are given (not to mention the source’s motivations for sharing it) and later synthesize it to create a story that is interesting enough to hold your attention while remaining editorially balanced. A reporter might believe they have a firm enough grasp of a topic to speak about it authoritatively, but when they’re wrong the story becomes collateral damage of the misunderstanding.

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When that happens, what recourse do you have as the reader/viewer? Contacting the media to correct errors after the fact might seem like a pointless exercise, but it can serve some good. Reputable organizations will run corrections — better late than never — and you could help the reporter avoid making a similar mistake in the future.

But even if the facts are correct, the story might not tackle its subject well because…

2. Stories are crafted for a general audience

The challenge a reporter faces in becoming familiar with new topics every day is daunting, and it’s even more of a reach to expect everybody in the audience to understand it perfectly without a bit of help. News coverage at major outlets aims to highlight everything important that happens and break it down into easily digestible parts for people to consume, but doing so can require sacrificing on detail.

Although there are plenty of “explainer” pieces out there with the sole purpose of diving deep into certain topics, most reporting focuses on telling tight, compelling stories that people like to read (or watch). An unintended side effect is oversimplification, when reporters leave out information they do not feel is necessary to tell a story.

However, for those times when a reporter is able to prepare a well-researched and fully fleshed-out story, it might not change the end result due to the fact that…

3. Stories have length limits

In a newspaper, there will always be a physical limit on how many words can fit on a page. On television, there will always be a fixed amount of time blocked off for a newscast. Even on the internet, where those conventional restrictions don’t exist, media types are still trying to zero in on the optimal story length (and it’s probably shorter than you think).

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The point is that there are always practical considerations when it comes to figuring out how much time or space it takes to tell a story. A print journalist could ask for 600 words and only get 400. A television reporter who wants two minutes might be cut down to 90 seconds. A story that lacks nuance or omits details might not have been intended that way, but in the course of the day’s events, another story could have taken precedence and grabbed the editorial spotlight. Sometimes it’s not even the reporter who decides what parts of a story stay and what goes. In fact, that’s not unusual, but it can lead to a situation where…

4. Too many hands touch a story before it goes public

The story you see in the news could be very different from the first version turned in by the reporter. Part of the reason why has to do with the standard editorial process: the facts of a story must be checked and re-checked to ensure accuracy, it has to have a clear, consistent voice and it must also conform to the newsroom’s stated ethical guidelines. Editors and/or producers play a crucial role in making all that happen, but if things are rushed or the story gets passed through too many checkpoints, problems can arise.

Think of it like a newsroom game of “Telephone”. Consider this hypothetical scenario: a reporter submits a story to their editor, who decides to make a change. The story gets passed to another editor who sees what they think is an error and makes another tweak. Finally, because this particular story could have legal ramifications, it lands on the desk of the news director, who re-arranges a few sentences and removes a quote before giving it the all-clear. Errors that result from this process are not intentional, but they can certainly erode a news organization’s credibility with its audience.

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Every time a news story is published, it should uphold the time-honoured journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness. When the media fails in that mission, it becomes an easy target for the public’s disapproval and anger — sometimes deservingly so. But just as we should strive to remember the human on the other side of the conversation when we engage with others in non-news contexts, we should also be cognizant that human errors can occur in the news business. The next time you spot an error in a news report, hold the people responsible to account, but also try to keep an open mind about how it could have happened. Maintaining that perspective will help you become a more discerning and intelligent consumer of news.

Featured photo: FreeImages.com