Journalism's first principle: Truth and accuracy above all

April 2, 2018 11:30

If April Fools’ Day, traditionally a time for practical jokes and tall tales, has taken on a darker undertone in today’s climate of misinformation, disinformation, and opinion disguised as fact, then so has April 2nd, International Fact Checking Day, assumed an increased urgency.

Fact checking in today’s 280-character world is a Sisyphean task but one that is central to journalism’s mission of empowering audiences to make more informed decisions.

RTDNA’s code of ethics puts truth and accuracy above all, on Fact Checking Day and every day, and provides useful guidance to journalists and fact checkers.

The facts should get in the way of a good story. Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.

Often, a snippet of fact will take on a life of its own, overshadowing critical context and skewing a more complex story or issue. Fact checks should not only correct misinformation but also note when a fact’s importance or implication is skewed because other critical facts are lacking.

Journalists, if you quote someone making a claim, also report the rest of the story: evidence supporting and refuting the claim.
 

For every story of significance, there are always more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.

Rarely is a fact simply true or false. When fact checking, note if a claim is partially true. Many myths begin with a partial truth taken out of context and exaggerated. Noting disinformation’s origin can lend strength to your fact check.

Scarce resources, deadline pressure and relentless competition do not excuse cutting corners factually or oversimplifying complex issues.

Never share before you check with another source, especially if a claim sounds extreme or unlikely. Be cautious of reporting based on other news outlets’ stories. If you cannot independently verify a story, consider whether it is really ready to publish.
 

“Trending,” “going viral” or “exploding on social media” may increase urgency, but these phenomena only heighten the need for strict standards of accuracy.

It has been shown that misinformation and disinformation spreads faster and wider than facts, fact checks and corrections. Often, misinformation is emotionally heightened or distinctive compared to the available verified truth, especially during breaking news situations and stories which create fear.
 

Facts change over time. Responsible reporting includes updating stories and amending archival versions to make them more accurate and to avoid misinforming those who, through search, stumble upon outdated material.

Also consider how reporting in the moment, from live shots to live tweeting, may be interpreted by users who see the content later when facts may have changed. Be specific in noting time and place and don’t assume your audience knows when the content first appeared. Consider threading tweets to keep additional context more accessible and updating Facebook posts on developing stories. Be clear and transparent in noting updates, additions and corrections. 

Deception in newsgathering, including surreptitious recording, conflicts with journalism’s commitment to truth. Similarly, anonymity of sources deprives the audience of important, relevant information. Staging, dramatization and other alterations – even when labeled as such – can confuse or fool viewers, listeners and readers. These tactics are justified only when stories of great significance cannot be adequately told without distortion, and when any creative liberties taken are clearly explained.

If you want your community to trust your newsroom with sharing “just the facts,” be sure that’s what you’re doing. Transparency matters more than ever: explain not just what you know but how you know it and what you do not yet know, but do not assume that your audience sees your explainations. Your stories must stand on their own. For more, review our coverage guideliens on ethical video and audio editing and digital manipulation.

Journalism challenges assumptions, rejects stereotypes and illuminates – even where it cannot eliminate – ignorance.

Fact checking can play a critical role in correcting misinformation, but often attempts to debunk misinformation inadvertently reinforce misconceptions rather than dispel them. People have a tendency to cling to false information even in the face of fact. Effectively responding to misinformation requires understanding the psychology of misinformation and delivering corrections in ways that stick.

Ethical journalism resists false dichotomies – either/or, always/never, black/white thinking – and considers a range of alternatives between the extremes.

Rarely is a fact simply true or false, but when all a reader sees is a headline or tweet, too often nuance is lost. Character limits are not an excuse to be incorrect or misleading. Rather, they require intense scrutiny and care to ensure that context is included.

News consumers are responsible for practicing media literacy, verifying claims they see before sharing and consuming information from a variety of sources. But as consumers face ever greater onslaughts of easier-to-access content, news and otherwise, journalists too have a role as aggrigators and information guides. Fact checking is one aspect of that role. As journalists, we have the tools and expertise to avoid being fooled by misinformation or opinion masquerading as news - and we have a duty to help members of our communities do the same.