By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
Scan the TV news trade magazines and websites in any given week, and you probably won’t have to go far to find yet another item about yet another TV station issuing a retraction, correction, or apology, usually for having done something really dumb.
The March/April cover of the Columbia Journalism Review poses an interesting question: “Who cares if it’s true?” Author Marc Fisher examines Internet aggregators and repackagers such as BuzzFeed, Thunderdome, and NowThis, the kind of newsrooms that traditionally have churned out a lot of product while doing very little original reporting. A quote from NowThis Editor in Chief Ed O’Keefe summarizes the get-it-out-there-now philosophy: “‘The YouTube generation understands that stories evolve. It's dirty and it's not always right, but it's instantaneous.’” Fisher goes on to make the point that even so, some Web newsrooms of this type are beginning to see the light about the need for accuracy, and are taking such radical steps as hiring copy editors.
The article doesn’t mention TV news, but the implications are interesting. As the Internet takes more and more food off the TV table, the competitive pressure not to get scooped on a story has never been greater. This scenario is quite common: an assignment editor or Web producer sees a hot item come over a Twitter feed—perhaps even the feed of a competing station. Or an assignment editor monitoring the scanners overhears police officers discussing a bombshell story. Or any other number of similar scenarios where an item comes in that isn’t verified, but boy, is it hot. Shouldn’t we get it out there now? We can’t sit on this! Working news directors can attest that all too often, when it comes to our own stations or those of our competitors, the split-second decision becomes, “Get it out there. The facts will sort themselves out later.” After all, if it’s wrong, we can always correct it. Or better yet, as the “facts evolve” we can simply write over the old story with a new one containing updated information, without issuing a formal correction.
One vocal segment of our own customer base reinforces this way of thinking. A TV newsroom that’s obviously tardy with a big, breaking development may find viewers plastering the station’s Facebook page with complaints or even vicious insults. Viewers may call the desk demanding to know what’s “wrong” with the station’s newsgathering efforts. And to compound it all, those early unconfirmed tips often do turn out to be true. A station that holds back and demands verification while a competitor forges fearlessly ahead runs the risk of looking only late, not accurate.
So is the “I’d rather be first with the truth than first with a mistake” news director destined to go the way of the dinosaur? In today’s 21st century media landscape, do viewers even care about accuracy anymore?
“Absolutely,” says Julie Kraft, senior consultant for Frank Magid and Associates. No one knows what viewers really think about TV news better than consultants, who constantly measure consumer attitudes, and Magid is an icon in the business. “They do still really, truly value it,” she says. “It's very important to viewers.” Kraft says accuracy consistently scores near the top of the list of items that news viewers value and demand.
But news directors who pride themselves for leading accurate newsrooms also know that beating a competitor who was first but wrong doesn’t always seem to translate into ratings right away. “People remember big mistakes,” Kraft explains. “But most viewers are not watching three stations at once, the way we are in television newsrooms.”
This leads to an obvious next question. In our promotion-driven business, how does a station get credit for being accurate?
Here comes the bad news. Accuracy, as it turns out, is a given, a basic job requirement, the ante for sitting at the table. “The problem comes when stations try to sell it,” Kraft says. A promo touting accuracy essentially says, “We meet expectations!!!” which will not go very far to eke out a sustainable competitive advantage. Says Kraft, viewers may react with, “‘Isn't that what you should be doing? Shouldn't you be accurate?’” They might even wonder if your promo has a hidden message that you don’t intend to convey. As Kraft puts it, “‘You mean you weren’t accurate before?’”
So, strictly from a ratings standpoint, if you don’t get a big pop from being right when your competitors blew it, and if you can’t promote that victory, either—then why worry so much about accuracy?
The answer, Kraft says, is that some stations do develop a reputation for getting it wrong, and it hurts them. Sometimes, it’s because the station flubbed a really big story. “They do notice it. And they do hang on to that for a long period of time.” But it’s not always a big fall-down that gets you—and this is going to provide heartburn for any news manager who’s ever fought a losing battle against little mistakes such as misspellings and mispronunciations. According to Kraft, if your news product is marred with enough of those, viewers start to ask questions like, “‘Gee, if you can’t spell that word right, I wonder how accurate your other facts are?’ Small stuff is important.”
But news coverage isn’t the only area where accuracy really counts, or where a perceived problem can hurt you. Weather is a huge concern. As Kraft puts it, “You said it's going to snow 12 inches, and we didn’t get it. Or vice versa. You said it was going to be fine, and we got twelve inches of snow. You forever become the station that blew the big blizzard.”
But weather is also the one area where consistent accuracy, authority and expertise are promotable.
So what happens when a station’s research comes back, and it shows viewers have pegged the news product with a credibility problem? Sadly, there are no quick fixes. According to Kraft, “Once there is that perception that you are second or third rate, that carries over into other things. You are constantly fighting that perception.” If you do find yourself in such a position, the only viable course of action is to identify any actual coverage inadequacies you might have, fix them, and then soldier on. It’s probably going to be a tough climb, and you won’t get out of the hole today. Even more discouraging is that when you do finally climb out into the sunshine, after all your hard work you may find yourself standing only at parity with your competitors, who didn’t have credibility problems to begin with. Yet you have to make the climb. The alternative is to forever accept your status as a third-rate newsroom.
Obviously, the best strategy is to stay out of the credibility pit to begin with. “You do not want to have to crawl yourself out of this hole,” Kraft says. This means demonstrating consistently strong newsroom leadership. It means taking a good, hard look at your coverage resources. It means setting and enforcing standards. It means working closely with the staff to encourage good behaviors, and discourage bad ones.
Which brings us back to that assignment editor with the hot Twitterverse tip in his or her hands. Kraft herself has been a news director. She fully understands the pressure just to get it out there now. “I've been in those shoes. But I'll tell you. It's going to hurt you more if you run with it, and it's wrong. People don't remember who's first all the time, as much as they remember who's accurate.”
There is a parallel here to the automotive competition of the 70’s. History shows that U.S. automakers, for the most part, had a philosophy of, “If it breaks, we’ll fix it.” Japanese carmakers had a different approach: “It won’t break.” We all know who won that argument. In our industry, a philosophy of putting an unconfirmed story out now, and correcting it later if necessary, is just not good enough.
And there’s more good news for TV. As it turns out, despite our occasional flaws, our industry is winning the credibility battle. “We do consistently see local television news as being one of the more credible sources of information out there. More so even than network news.” Surveys such as those conducted for the Pew Research Center also typically show local TV news outscoring all other media in credibility. The flip side to this equation is that if we let our credibility standards fall so that we can be more like the Internet, we will lose. We can’t play their game. We have to play ours. Our audience expects more from us.
One of the key reasons for this difference is that TV viewers make personal connections with anchors. This has profound implications. “Your talent has to be very mindful about accuracy,” Kraft says. Viewers trust them, but this trust comes with high expectations. “They trust that they're credible. They trust that they check facts, and do things right.”
TV newsrooms today increasingly are populated with journalists just starting their careers. But anchors tend to have more experience. This means it’s more incumbent upon them than ever before to pay close attention to what they’re reading on air, and show the appropriate leadership. If the station trips over its facts and does a face-plant on the sidewalk, so to speak, it’s the anchor who’ll wear the bandages. Since the anchors are the station’s ambassadors to the world, it won’t do to have them looking beat-up or lost.
So, yes—for local news, accuracy counts more than ever. A single big victory may not show up right away in the ratings. Chronic accuracy issues, however, will erode a station’s standing over time, and put it in a hole that it will find very difficult to climb out of. Big, disastrous mistakes might have the same effect. Those who win almost certainly will be those who consistently do the best job of getting it right over the long term.
And there’s one other reason to set and meet high standards. It’s the right thing to do.
Forrest Carr has worked as a television news director in Arizona, New Mexico and Florida, and as an ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute. He can be reached at forrestcarr99 at gmail dot com