Thursday, April 07, 2005 | Accuracy is the first cardinal rule of journalism.
Accuracy is so crucial to journalism because it is a matter of credibility. People count on the news being believable, because they plan their lives by it, at least in democratic republics.
By “accuracy,” of course we mean content. The facts in the story must be accurate. The more important the story, the more important that content be accurate. The Founding Fathers understood that. The media in America is granted what amounts to absolute constitutional power to develop content that is accurate and complete. So great is this First Amendment media power that a body of law called defamation law has developed through the courts to give citizens protection against media abuse of its power.
Most importantly, content must be accurate to the person that the story is about. Journalists working on stories about powerful people like presidents won’t publish information that hasn’t been confirmed by at least three sources. If they do, they are asking for the kind of trouble into which CBS News plunged after rushing the story last year about George W. Bush’s military records.
By “accuracy,” we also mean spelling, punctuation and grammar. If you think the First Amendment is tough, try getting into San Diego State’s entry-level journalism class without passing the GSP. GSP stands for “Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation.” GSP is so important to accuracy because of the wine and sewage reality: If you put a spoonful of wine in a barrel of sewage, you get sewage. If you put a spoonful of sewage in a barrel of wine, you get sewage.
If a consumer sees an error of grammar, spelling or punctuation in a story, the story loses credibility: “If this person can’t be bothered to spell and punctuate correctly, and employ correct grammar, then how can I trust this person to provide me a believable story about the state budget?” Or City Hall? Or the symphony? Or the Super Bowl?
Mistakes happen all the time, because mistakes happen. Some journalism instructors will assign an automatic grade of zero to any student’s work in which an error appears. I can’t do that, because I have committed errors myself. I tell my own students that I truly hope they pass their entire media careers without an error, but that is not likely. They will learn to work hard to avoid errors, though, because it is the errors they will remember, even above the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1978, in a story in The San Diego Union, I got a name wrong. The name in question was Bogle, or Bogen. He was a PSA pilot. I forget which was the incorrect one, but that’s the one I used, and it pains me to this day.
It pains me because it is a matter of credibility. It’s not my own personal credibility – I was trying to do the correct thing – but what is important is that as a professional journalist, I am a ward of the people’s demand for credibility. The media did not create the three cardinal rules of journalism. People did. In fact any of the tools the media uses to do its job were not created by the media. They were created by people. The tools of media existed among people long before the media came into existence. When it did, it simply took those tools and turned them into a business.
That is the reality that assures me today. The media appears to be under attack by the Bush administration, or by organizations and individuals linked to the administration, who have developed a cottage industry of passing off fake news as the real thing. Pundits worry about the effect of the fake real thing on the real real thing. Frankly, I worry about a president, the top defender of the Constitution, who would let it happen.
But I don’t worry too much, because in our democratic dynamic of checks and balances, there is a huge check coming that will restore balance. Not all people, but more than enough to make the difference, understand instinctively the importance of credibility to their well-being, and their freedom, and their self-interest, and they won’t accept their media any other way. They are starting to sense that something is wrong, that someone is using their tools the wrong way, and they will fix it. And the real media will get to write about it. Something to look forward to.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at