The News Business Is Changing. Again.

A historical perspective on journalism's quest for accuracy

Walter Isaacson began his recent Time essay about the news business by declaring that “the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions.” He suggested that a micropayment system could help encourage people to pay for online news. For all of its faults, Isaacson’s argument did micropayments proud by inspiring many people to give their own two cents on the matter.

Setting aside the micropayments issue, we’re left with Isaacson’s declaration about the news business. Whether or not you share Isaacson’s view that journalism is in a state of crisis, these are undeniably interesting times for the profession. A wave of change is crashing over journalism and the business built around it. By my count, it’s the fourth such wave, at least in terms of accuracy and quality.

The first wave occured in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europe during the birth of the newspaper. Prior to that time, printed news came in the form of “newsbooks.” These were one-off publications containing a mix of commentary and news that was gathered by word of mouth, from ship captains, or simply by copying from other newsbooks. Their ephemeral nature—a newsbook might appear one day never to be seen again—meant that most publishers didn’t have to worry about someone complaining about an inaccuracy in a previous issue. That changed when publishers started adhering to a set production frequency. The newsbook became the newspaper.

“[Publishers] started producing weekly or biweekly newssheets on sale from a public office where people could come back and say, ‘That report doesn’t jibe with reality’,” said Stephen Ward, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia and author of the excellent book The Invention of Journalism Ethics, when I interviewed him for my book. “They had to try and retain the reader’s confidence.”

Frequency, and the consistent news brand that came with it, made publishers realize the importance of accuracy and quality reporting. Or, to be precise, they realized the importance of the appearance of accuracy. As a result, early newspaper publishers in England made loud and mostly exaggerated claims about the accuracy of their reports.

In England, the Faithful Scout promised “to encounter falsehood with the sword of truth.” Another paper, Mercurius Civicus, carried the subtitle: “Truth impartially related from thence to the whole Kingdome, to prevent mis-information.”

The end result of the first wave was that accuracy and factual reporting become part of the language of the burgeoning newspaper business. You couldn’t have one without the other. Accuracy was primarily a marketing strategy, though some early papers did print corrections. Ward’s book notes a 1624 correction wherein the famous publisher Thomas Gainsford “thanks a reader for correcting a previous erroneous story that located the Anti-christ’s birth in Babylon.” (He was, apparently, born somewhere else.)

The second wave of accuracy came in the nineteenth century with the emergence of the penny press in New York. (These papers cost one penny, in contrast with the more austere journals that typically charged six cents.) Just as the first wave was linked to frequency, the second wave was linked to mass circulation. The penny papers aimed to bring the news to the masses at an affordable price. This meant they had to sell a lot of copies each day, which ended up being bad news for accuracy.

Penny papers like the New York Sun claimed accuracy as a cornerstone of their enterprise, but it was often sacrificed in order to drive up circulation. This was never more true than with the Sun’s famous Moon Hoax of 1835. The second wave reached its climax at the end of the century with the excesses of the so-called yellow press. One of the best things to be said about the second wave is that it led directly to the third wave, which started with the dawn of the twentieth century and created a professionalized form of journalism.

The early 1900s saw the creation of journalism schools and codes of professional ethics. Accuracy and quality reporting became more than mere marketing slogans. In 1913, the New York World created a Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play, and with it came the first newspaper ombudsman. In 1922, the American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted its “Canons of Journalism,” a series of statements that, among other things, enshrined accuracy as a fundamental value.

The first three waves were precipitated by frequency, mass circulation, and the professionalization of journalism. Which brings me to our current, looming fourth wave, which, not surprisingly, largely results from the growth of the Internet. The fourth wave is characterized by 24/7 frequency, global unpaid circulation, a requirement that the profession evolve, and the emergence of citizen journalism.

This wave’s final impact on accuracy and quality has yet to be determined, but if history is any lesson, it will change journalism for decades to come. Interesting times indeed.

Correction of the Week

“In our article ‘Wikiworld’ (3 February 2009) we repeated several claims about Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia founder: that he had a company that dealt in “soft porn” and was short-lived: that he had had to defend himself against “allegations from former colleagues that he used Wikipedia as a personal piggybank”: that he faced controversy over his age and “doctored his own Wikipedia entry to knock it down a couple of years: and that there had been speculation and board in-fighting about Wales’s relationship with the organisation. Jimmy Wales has pointed out that we repeated allegations which have no truth and we apologise to him for this.” – The Independent

How Newspapers Get Even

“A headline in the Feb. 13-Feb. 15 edition of 24 hours Ottawa that said Sex Assault Charges was incorrect.

“In fact, as the story reported, Robert Lacelle has been charged in connection with the theft of newspaper boxes, and the charges have nothing to do with a sex assault. 24 hours regrets the error.” – 24 Hours (Ottawa)

Parting Shot

“DARTS champion Phil Taylor is known as ‘The Power’, not ‘The Force’.” (Page 19, February 9).—Mirror (U.K.)

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