behind the news

Standard of Living

Guillaume Chenevière wants to standardize our approach to quality control
January 15, 2010

The news executive patiently listened to Guillaume Chenevière’s points, and then explained that, the way he saw it, he had alligators crawling all over his back, and Chenevière was lecturing him about the need to drain the swamp where the gators live.

Such is the lonely, misunderstood life of the media quality standard man. Chenevière, a former print and broadcast executive in Switzerland, is the executive director of the non-profit Media and Society Foundation, an organization that has developed two “universal media quality management standards” based on the ISO 9001 management standard. ISO is the International Organization for Standardization (go here to find out why their acronym isn’t IOS), and it has developed thousands of standards for a wide range of industries and applications. If you’ve ever driven by a factory or warehouse and seen a banner proudly declaring the company’s adherence to ISO 9001 or ISO 14001, you have the ISO to thank for your confusion.

Chenevière and his colleagues have developed two ISO standards that specifically apply to media organizations. There are currently five certified organizations, and the Foundation expects to have a total of ten by the end of this year. The goal is to provide a measurable, enforceable framework to ensure that news organizations are meeting a high, yes, standard in terms of their operations and final product. He said the process of creating the standards (ISAS BC 9001 for broadcasters and ISAS P 9001 for print media and Internet content producers) began in 2001 with a survey to see if there were universally held values within the media industry around the world.

“To our surprise, 66 percent of the answers in the 5 countries [surveyed] overlapped,” he said. “They had the same kind of basic values and principles.”

Was accuracy one of those values?

“Accuracy of information is certainly a universal objective,” he said. “Editorial independence comes first, and then accuracy [is second].… In fact, one of the first organizations that applied our systems, which was in Indonesia, used our standard so management was able to express and check up on objectives such as the accuracy of news.”

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I dedicated last week’s column to the need for a quality control revolution in the press, and in the past I’ve spent time speaking with quality control experts from other industries and professions to see if their principles and practices can be applied to a newsroom. All the while, I had no idea that a group in Geneva had already developed a universal quality control standard. That changed when Chenevière added a comment on my column about his group’s efforts:

The Swiss-based Media and Society Foundation is implementing across the globe a universal media quality management standard implying, among other things, quality control in the newsroom. We are a group of mostly retired media professionals working on a voluntary basis out of the conviction that society needs stronger media and that media will only be stronger if they become more transparent, more accountable and more efficient. Our media quality management standard is slowly but surely gaining recognition among media organizations in most parts of the world, but the US remains an exception.

Along with Chenevière’s comment, David Sullivan weighed in on what I wrote, noting that, with last week’s column and a previous one last April, I had offered “two columns with the right thought, but no solutions—possibly because there is no solution.”

I agree that there is no single solution, but there is a range of existing options to examine—and now the ISO media quality standard can be added to the list. The list currently includes introducing the use of checklists for reporters and editors, trying some of the new editing processes outlined in this excellent piece by Carl Sessions Stepp, and creating a corrections database that records all of the known errors made by an organization so you can track what’s going wrong. In fact, the checklists, new editing models, and corrections database would all be things that could help an organization get ISO certified, according to Chenevière.

The value of the certification is that it provides an element of oversight. An organization has to set out its objectives and the measures it will take to meet them. In order to retain its certification, an organization is audited once per year and then has to go through the full re-certification process every three years. If a newspaper were to, say, suddenly get rid of close to twenty copy editors and fail to adapt and create new quality-control processes, the audit will expose that, and the organization could lose its certification.

“If you notice an increase in the number of mistakes…then you will have to change the system that you apply,” Chenevière said. “In one case, we did a quality gap analysis [with a publication] in Peru and noticed what they had in place was a system where they would re-write every article to make sure they are well written. But they did not have an efficient system in place by which the author can re-read the re-writing.”

Chenevière said ISO certification helps provide a measure of external accountability that can be used to drive internal processes and accountability. On top of that, it encourages organizations to be transparent with the audience and community about their values and objectives. This, too, helps drive enforcement and accountability.

The problem is that quality certification is completely foreign to most newsrooms. In fact, the attitude towards standardization can be decidedly negative.

“I was speaking with someone at the Knight Foundation the day before I read your column and they said, ‘Your system is un-American,’” Chenevière told me. Indeed the idea of a centralized standardization body probably strikes many people in American journalism as something that could interfere with editorial independence, or add a layer of bureaucracy.

Chenevière admits that it often takes years of patient explanation and collaboration for a news organization to sign onto his program. But he also emphasizes that they don’t go around removing stars like some kind of haughty Michelin inspector.

“We’re not going to the BBC and saying, ‘You just lost one star because of the Kelley affair,’” he says. “They would throw us out the window.”

On top of that, the executive with alligators on his back is far from alone in thinking that he doesn’t have time to step back and address the root of the problem.

“They say it’s not time to talk about such things,” Chenevière said. “But they are wrong.”

Correction of the Week

IN her letter published in the Echo last Friday, Mrs Marion Smith talked about the loss of her husband after 58 years of marriage and the importance of a supportive, loving family.
She said “his life was hell and his death released him from it”. In preparing the letter for publication, we edited out the fact that Mrs Smith’s husband had suffered from Alzheimer’s in later years. We are happy to clarify this point. — South Wales Echo

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.