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News Reports

Fact-checking is necessary, but not easy

I told my class of undergraduates that I would fail them if I found any inaccuracy in their reporting assignment. They blanched.

It takes effort to be accurate, and that’s something most non-journalists take for granted when they read or view any kind of news report. That’s because readers already assume that the reports must be accurate – and they are taken aback when errors are made public.

The role of quality journalism is more acute in these days of fake news. During the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods, journalist after journalist swear by their professional code of ethics that they do their damnedest to ensure that facts are really just that, facts.

Fact-checking is an onerous process, which is why I lament the near-extinction of that species of journalist known as the sub-editor, in the effort of newsrooms to stay lean. This last line of defence is seen as an unnecessary extra because sub-editors do not add to the bottomline of media companies. Bean counters assume that a journalist is a superperson who can multi-task across mediums quickly, while making sure that the facts are all there. Why have another level of manning when anyone can upload anything online so easily (and correct them so easily too)?

It was therefore a trifle disconcerting for me to see editors before the panel swear by the importance of real news when the truth is that there has been a dwindling number of fact-checkers in the newsrooms.

It’s a pity.

I have seen numerous sub-editors who save the day for rookie reporters by catching their errors before publication or adding to the quality of a report by demanding more information.  Quite a few have also spotted “cut-and-paste’’ news reports which carried whole background paragraphs from old reports, and even called out reporters on plagiarism. That is, they weed out sloppy reporting and writing. Very experienced sub-editors can even “smell” when a story is wrong, because the tone or content doesn’t gel with their institutional memory. Therefore, the question: “Are you sure?”

The job of the sub-editor, you see, is not just to make sure the report is readable, but as far as they can, accurate and honest. In Singapore, they do not go to the lengths of calling a newsmaker to ask if he or she had really been spoken to. But they do check on whether names and designations tally, research available information to verify specific points and ask reporters for the source of information if it wasn’t already in the draft.

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This is because journalists shouldn’t expect readers to believe them just on their say-so. Whenever I come across a new piece of information in a news report, I look for the attribution. Who is saying this? Where is this from? In other words, how did the journalist know? The use of the word “source’’ is particularly problematic. Is it the cleaning lady or the CEO? And is it one source or several?

This is why good news organisations try to give as much information about a source as possible, right down to name, age and occupation to show readers that a real live person had been spoken to and what is more, you may assess his words by his age and occupation. Experts are also identified fully by their designations and area of expertise and for the really controversial stuff, even their years of specialization, to underscore the credibility of his information or views.

I’ve had to deal with reporters in the past about the need to include such background information on sources and modes of verification because, the journalists argue, they tend to break the flow of the story and add “clutter”. My response has always been : “But why should readers trust YOU?’’

It becomes a bigger problem for news reports on surveys because beyond reporting the results, they should also state information such as the methodology, sample size and even the types of questions asked. When such basic information isn’t made public, readers would have to simply trust that the reporters have made the requisite checks and found the survey credible – before thrusting the results on the public.

I believe mainstream media still places a premium on accuracy, which is why I piggyback on – and credit – their reporting when I write my columns, unless I have obtained the source material myself. There have been times, however, when I hesitate doing so because they do not credit information they have. How can I say that I am relying and crediting this particular report to a news organisation, when the original report itself is short on attribution? What is even worse is when a news report is really a report about what another news report says. The reader will have to judge the credibility of that original report as well.

Complicated enough?

Journalists should be glad that there aren’t many readers like me, who can spot gaps easily because of long experience editing good stuff as well as plenty of junk. Plus, I belong to the old school of journalists who cry every time I make an error in my work. Self-flagellation couldn’t be more intense when you know that you have let your side down, so to speak.

In these days of online news and blogging, it is for the mainstream media newsrooms to prove that they are many cuts above, by harnessing their tremendous resources to ensure that all stories are “nailed down’’. Raising the level of professionalism should be their main concern. The product is the best branding of any news organization, not its carnivals, marathons and concerts.

The G can help too, but that is the subject of another column.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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