Is accuracy an outdated value?

That’s not normally a question I’d pose, but it was raised in a recent opinion piece at paidContent.org by entrepreneur Ben Elowitz. His piece suggested “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless.” This was example number two:

2) Correctness: The old rules of quality prize correctness and are unforgivingly intolerant of errors in reporting. They are deeply invested in rigorous fact-checking; multiple source corroboration; and correct spelling of proper nouns. I’ve given interviews to old-media outlets where I’ve spent more time on the phone with the fact checker than with the reporter.

My first thought was: Wow, this old-world press sounds great! Correctness is “prized” and the old rules mean that publishers “are deeply invested in rigorous fact-checking.” News organizations won’t brook errors of reporting; proper nouns must be respected! Love it.

If only things actually worked that way. I’m afraid Elowitz fell victim to the hype.

Newspapers do not engage in what is considered “fact-checking.” Yes, reporters are expected to check their work, and copy editors help verify facts. But there is no direct investment in “rigorous fact-checking.” That exists only at a handful of magazines like the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and others. But other magazines have been chucking their checkers for roughly twenty years. The rest never had them. So while the old rules seem rigid and rigorous, they were in fact neither.

Also, thanks to over seventy years of newspaper accuracy research by academics, we also know that proper nouns are in fact among the most misspelled facts by newspapers.

Elowitz and I agree that accuracy is seen as a measure of quality in traditional journalism. Unfortunately, few organizations take the time to measure or enforce it. But what’s most important to note is that the public recognizes accuracy as a measure of quality—and there are no signs of that changing. So it’s far from useless; quite the opposite, in fact.

I tend to agree with one of the comments left on Elowitz’s post, which noted that “Correctness is essential to enable a user to evaluate the quality of a news source or commentary quickly and efficiently. For example, consistent accuracy of basic facts is the reason why wikipedia is so popular and trusted.”

On the other side of the coin, inaccuracy continues to exact punishment. A traditional news organization like, say, The Washington Post is mocked when it appears to mix up Malcolm X and President Obama (background here and here). Newer news organizations are also called out when they make an embarrassing misstep. There are still consequences. It’s strange that this is the case if, as Elowitz says, correctness is no longer a valid measure of quality. When RadarOnline.com reported that Chief Justice John Roberts was “considering” stepping down, it faced an onslaught of skepticism and criticism. Why? Because it had no track record of accuracy in similar matters. It was not seen as trustworthy by the press or the public because accuracy wasn’t part of its brand.

It’s tempting to look at the manifold changes in the world of publishing and assume that, as a result, the old values and measurements are being left behind. Elowitz’s section on accuracy ended with his assessment of the changed world:

… Today, publishers can update stories multiple times an hour with no hard costs. The world changes fast now—and readers have come to accept that the facts will too. Publishing rumors and single-sourced stories (disclosed for what they are) is fair game for winning audiences. The audience can supply the suspicion directly without the publisher doing so as proxy; and the audience values timeliness more than correctness. Too many editors care far more about being accurate than they do being useful; and they will find themselves out of business soon if they don’t start measuring themselves more by relevance than by accuracy.

He looks at a world characterized by information abundance and mass access to the tools of publishing and sees an increasing need for publishers to race ahead, to do anything to “win” audience. But what happens when you’re wrong? How many times can you win an audience that way before you lose them for good? How many people don’t trust RadarOnline.com now because of the Chief Justice Roberts story? I’d argue that the site’s temporary traffic win has turned into a long-term loss.

But perhaps the strangest formulation in this bit of contrarian linkbait is that old-world editors “care far more about being accurate than they do being useful.”

His declaration that these two values exist in opposition is enough to make you question the quality of his insights.

Correction of the Week

“An entry on the Contributors page last Sunday for Anjelica Huston, who discussed her recherché pick in perfumes, included an incorrect reference by Ms. Huston to one of her four beauty icons. While Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn and Katharine Hepburn are no longer living, as Ms. Huston noted, the other icon she cited as being deceased is not. Sophia Loren — and her beauty — live on.” The New York Times

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.