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Chapter 12: Getting the Story Right and Being Fair
The Principles of Accuracy and Fairness
Robert J. Haiman, Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists (Arlington, Virginia: The Freedom
Forum’s Free Press/Fair Press Project, 2000). You can download the book here:
Michael W. Singletary and Richard Lipsky, “Accuracy in local TV news,” Journalism Quarterly,
Summer77, Vol. 54 Issue 2, p362-364. (Academic database)
Butch Ward, “Time for transparency,” June 15, 2007,
Larry L. Burris, “Accuracy of news magazines as perceived by news source,” Journalism
Quarterly, Winter85, Vol. 62 Issue 4, p824-827. (Academic database)
Jennifer Kelley, “Speaking of editors: Six editors relate what it feels like to be on the
receiving end of news coverage,” Media Studies Journal, Spring/Summer 1998, 126-137.
Interviews with Jerry Ceppos, Shelby Coffey III, Max Frankel, James Hoge, Dave
Lawrence, and Geneva Overholser. (Academic databases)
“Guidelines for columnists,” an essay written by the book’s author for this website.
Columnists get privileges that reporters don’t, but they still have to play by the rules of
accuracy and fairness. [See separate file in this folder.]
The narrative form of journalism:
John Hersey, “The legend on the license,” The Yale Review, Vol. 70, 1980, 1-25.
“[T]here is one sacred rule of journalism. The writer must not invent. The legend on the
license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.” (Academic databases)
Russell Frank, “ ‘You had to have been there’ (and they weren’t): The problem with
reporter reconstructions,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 14, No. 3, 146-158, 1999.
(Academic databases)
Russell Frank, “Wait before you narrate,” poynteronline, Jan. 23, 2002.
Roy Peter Clark, “The line between fact and fiction,” poynteronline, Sept. 7, 2004.
The role of editors in the digital age:
Kurt Greenbaum, “Readers as editors,” The American Editor, Fall 2008. Greenbaum,
expanding on an idea advanced by blogger Jeff Jarvis, wonders: “Now that the public can
point out editors within minutes, can the modern newsroom afford to shed a layer of
Bob Steele, “Ethical values and quality control in the digital era,” Nieman Reports,
Winter 2008. “Situations that editors confront in this digital-era maelstrom reflect the
vexing ethical challenges and the diminished quality control standards at a time they are
most needed.”
Jeff Baron, “On copy editing,” The Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2008. A discussion of how
meticulous editing is needed to assure accuracy.
American Copy Editors Society, “Readers prefer edited news, research sponsored by
ACES finds,” March 17, 2011. Reports on research by Fred Vultee of Wayne State
University on “reader perceptions of quality” in news stories “produced for a Web-first
environment.” ACES was concerned that “the rush to be first online has often meant that
stories get posted without going through the copy desk.” Vultee’s research indicated that
readers are indeed bothered by grammatical errors and other problems that result when
unedited copy is disseminated. Includes a slideshow on Vultee’s findings.
Jan Leach, “In digital age, copy editors still uphold journalistic responsibility,”
Newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society, May 3, 2011. A discussion of “three
key ethics issues to keep in mind when editing online: speed vs. accuracy, transparency,
and feedback from commenters.”
Language precision:
Arthur S. Brisbane, “Public Editor’s Journal: Confusing sex and rape,” The New York
Times, Nov. 19, 2011. Brisbane writes: “As the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State
University shows, reporting on sex crimes poses a challenge not only to get the story
right but to deliver it in language that puts the facts in the proper light. Some readers …
strongly objected to wording in the articles that, in their view, either underplayed the
details or wrongly applied the language of consensual sex to the narrative.” For example,
the articles used ‘sexual assault’ when ‘rape’ was an accurate description of what a
witness said he saw.
Judith Matloff, “Fighting words: How war reporters can resist the loaded language of
their beat,” Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 2012. Matloff urges editors
and reporters to “do their best to reclaim vocabulary from those who would use it to
obscure and mislead.”
Richard Jewell and the Olympic Bombing
Ronald J. Ostrow’s case study, written for the Project for Excellence in Journalism and posted on
Feb. 15, 2003, at The case includes the text of the
headline and story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s extra edition on July 30, 1996.
BBC News, “Man admits Atlanta Olympics bomb,” April 13, 2005,
The Associated Press, “Richard Jewell honored at Georgia Capitol for heroism during 1996.”
Online at USA Today, Aug. 2, 2006:
Kevin Sack, “Richard Jewell, 44, hero of Atlanta attack, dies,” The New York Times, Aug. 30,
“Valley of Death”: Operation Tailwind
Attorney Floyd Abrams’ report on his independent investigation of CNN’s broadcast “Valley of
Death,” July 2, 1998, accessed at:
Susan Paterno, “An ill Tailwind,” American Journalism Review, September 1998.
How CNN, despite red flags, aired – and had to retract – an explosive report on the military's
alleged use of poison gas.
Christopher Callahan, “An embarrassing time,” American Journalism Review, September 1998.
The Tailwind fiasco.
Perry Smith, “The lessons of Tailwind,” American Journalism Review, December 1998. CNN’s
former military adviser sifts through the wreckage of the ill-fated “Valley of Death” report.
Bush/National Guard Memos
Dick Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi, Report of the Independent Review Panel on the
September 8, 2004, “60 Minutes Wednesday” Segment “For the Record” Concerning President
Bush’s Texas Air National Guard Service, Jan. 5, 2005. Accessed at:, 1-2.
PBS Online Newshour, “CBS use of National Guard documents probed.” This allows you to view
the documents in question. While the case study states that the documents proved to be
forgeries, the Thornbugh-Boccardi investigative panel concluded only that CBS could not prove
their authenticity.
CBS Statement on Bush Memos, Sept. 20, 2004.
CBS News release, “CBS ousts 4 for Bush Guard story,” Jan. 10, 2005.
Bill Carter, “Rather’s CBS suit dismissed,” The New York Times, Sept. 29, 2009. This news story
updates the lawsuit mentioned in the chapter.
Al Tompkins, “Mapes: Decision to Air National Guard Story Was Made by CBS Superiors,
Including Heyward,” poynteronline, Jan. 10, 2010, updated March 2, 2011. Reports on Mary
Mapes’ statement issued after her dismissal by CBS.
See also Mapes’ book: Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005).
Frame Your Stories Fairly
Framing the news: Triggers, frames and messages in news coverage,” a study of the Project for
Excellence in Journalism and Princeton Survey Research Associates, July 13, 1998.
Leslie Whitaker, “Covering (and reinforcing) conflict,” American Journalism Review,
August/September 2005. If the stories journalists tell about conflict focus primarily on the dissent
between extremes, are we actually fostering polarization?
Insist on Adequate Sourcing
Marvin Kalb, One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, and 13 Days That Tarnished American
Journalism (New York: The Free Press, 2001). The summary of Martin Baron’s critique of The
New York Times’ initial coverage of the scandal is on 153-156.
Rem Rieder, “Get ‘out there’ outta here,” American Journalism Review, December 1998.
It’s not good enough to go with a story just because others are running with it or it’s in
the atmosphere.
Paul Farhi, “Mistaken nation,” American Journalism Review, Winter 2012. An analysis
of recent factual errors committed by journalists across all news-delivery platforms. “Allthe time deadlines and a win-the-traffic scoop culture” put pressure on reporters to work
faster, threatening journalistic accuracy.
Screen Polls and Surveys Carefully
Barb Palser, “All error, no margin,” American Journalism Review, December 2004/January 2005.
News organizations should temper their enthusiasm for pseudo polls.
Norm Goldstein, Ed., The Associated Press Stylebook (New York: Basic Books, 2009). The “polls
and surveys” entry is on 217-218.
Sarah Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007). Reviewed by Rick Perlstein, “The flaw of
averages: How polls obscure America’s many social patchworks,” Columbia Journalism
Review, May/June 2007. (Academic databases)
Ben Adler, “The problem with covering polls,” Columbia Journalism Review Campaign
Desk, April 8, 2011. Criticizes The Daily Caller for mistaking opinions as facts in a
report on a survey.
Sheldon R. Gawiser and G. Evans Witt, “20 questions a journalist should ask about poll
results, 3rd edition,” National Council on Public Polls.
Be Alert for Hoaxes
The Smoking Gun, “Big phat liar,” March 26, 2008. How a federal inmate duped the Los Angeles
Times, fabricated FBI reports, and linked Sean "Diddy" Combs to 1994 ambush of Tupac Shakur.
James Rainey, “The Times apologizes over article on rapper.”Los Angeles Times, March 27,
2008. A Los Angeles Times story about a brutal 1994 attack on rap superstar Tupac Shakur was
partially based on documents that appear to have been fabricated.,0,2043351.story
Ofelia Casillas, David Heinzmann and Rex W. Huppke, “HOAX! Did Sgt. Dan Kennings
die in Iraq? Not really. Did Sgt. Dan Kennings even exist? Well, no. So who was that
little girl writing the letters?”, The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 25, 2005. A hoax perpetrated
on a college newspaper.
Craig Silverman, “Letter imperfect: A better strategy for verifying letters to the editor,”
Columbia Journalism Review, Jan. 9, 2009.
Kelly McBride, “Journalists must expose, not perpetuate, bogus news,” poynteronline,
Sept, 3, 2009. In a two-week period, McBride found at least four Internet hoaxes that
could be traced to professional journalists deliberately creating false information, failing
to vet their facts, or passing along information that is clearly suspect.
Jack Shafer, “Fake press releases are a public service,” Reuters, Nov. 28, 2012. Shafer
sees an ironic benefit in the rash of phony releases that prompted news organizations to
report information they had not checked out. “Fake press releases are like the viruses that
infect vulnerable computer systems; until you fix the system, they’ll continue to work.”
Use Sound Research Techniques
Barbara G. Friedman, Web Search Savvy: Strategies and Shortcuts for Online Research
(Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005).
Donna Shaw, “Wikipedia in the newsroom,” American Journalism Review, February/March 2008.
While the line “according to Wikipedia” pops up occasionally in news stories, it’s relatively rare to
see the user-created online encyclopedia cited as a source.
Wikipedia disclaimer (“Wikipedia can be wrong”):
Annika Mengisen, “By a bunch of nobodies: A Q&A with the author of The Wikipedia
Revolution,” Freakonomics blog on, June 16, 2009. A discussion of
Wikipedia and journalists’ research.
Matt Pressberg, “What the media gets wrong about guns,” Online Journalism Review,
Jan. 21, 2013. “Too few journalists have a solid understanding of guns and gun violence.
Here are three major things the media gets wrong.”
Set the Record Straight
David Shaw, “Papers must write it up when they get it wrong,” Los Angeles Times, June 13,
Debora Halpern Wenger and Deborah Potter, Advancing the Story: Broadcast Journalism in a
Multimedia World (Washington: CQ Press, 2007).
Alicia C. Shepard, “To err is human, to correct divine,” American Journalism Review,
June 1998. “Many editors now feel that readily acknowledging mistakes can help
strengthen credibility.”
Dick Haws, “The New York Times and its editors’ notes,” Newspaper Research Journal,
Spring 1999. How The Times goes beyond correcting errors in fact. (Academic
Sue Burzynski Bullard, “Regret the error, but who admits it?”, newsletter of the
American Copy Editors Society, September/October 2010. When a news website corrects
an error in one of its stories, should the story be flagged to indicate that the correction
was made? This is an analysis by a professor at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln.
Craig Silverman, “Report an Error Alliance,” An ad hoc group
campaigns for online news sites to insert a “report an error” button to make it easy for
users to register inaccuracies they see in news accounts.
Additional Case Studies
The linebacker’s dead girlfriend: During the 2012 college football season, sportswriters
repeated the story of the illness and death of the girlfriend of Notre Dame’s All-America
linebacker, Manti Te’o. Then the website Deadspin revealed that the girlfriend never
existed. The episode offers a reminder of the need to check the facts.
 Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, “Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend, the most
heartbreaking and inspirational story of the college football season, is a hoax,”
Deadspin, Jan. 16, 2013. The story that broke the news.
Jack Shafer, “Manti Te’o and the press get blitzed,” Reuters, Jan. 17, 2013.
“[T]he Te’o love story appears to have remained consistent over time, and the
cumulative force of repetition blunted suspicions. … [R]eporters tend to believe –
but shouldn’t – things that get retold.”
David Folkenflik, “The Manti Te’o story: why the news media let its guard
down,” NPR, Jan. 18, 2013. “[E]ach successive journalist unconsciously relied on
the last for confidence in what he or she was presenting to the public. And this
story was one they wanted to believe.”
Ned Zeman, “The boy who cried dead girlfriend,” Vanity Fair, June 2013. A
summary of the case.
Covering the Boston Marathon bombing: Two bombs fashioned from home pressure
cookers killed three people and injured more than 250 near the finish line of the race on
April 15, 2013. The ensuing news coverage was generally very good, but there also were
significant mistakes. This is an episode worthy of study by aspiring journalists.
 Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, “Boston Marathon bombings: resources
for effective coverage,” April 15, 2013. This essay offers tips for journalists
covering mass tragedies.
 Al Tompkins, “Let’s remember Richard Jewell as we cover Boston ‘suspects’,”
poynteronline, April 18, 2013. Some people named in the media as suspects had
nothing to do with the bombings.
 Rem Rieder, “On Boston bombing, media are wrong – again,” USA Today, April
18, 2013. Rieder analyzes a false report that an arrest had been made.
 Brian Stelter, “News media and social media become part of a real-time manhunt
drama,” The New York Times, April 19, 2013.
 David Carr, “The pressure to be the TV news leader tarnishes a big brand,” The
New York Times, April 21, 2013. Further analysis of the false report.
 Jim Romenesko’s blog, “AP memo on Boston coverage, April 22, 2013. Internal
memos acknowledging mistakes.
Using Bloomberg terminals to monitor subscribers. More than 315,000 business
subscribers pay Bloomberg LP to use its terminals for research, trading, communication
and financial information. Reporters for Bloomberg News, the company’s journalism
arm, were found to be using the terminals to learn what kind of information certain
subscribers were seeking. As a result, Bloomberg News tightened its rules.
 Amy Chozick and Ben Protess, “Privacy breach on Bloomberg’s data terminals,”
The New York Times, May 10, 2013. “A shudder went through Wall Street …
after the revelation that Bloomberg News reporters had extracted subscribers’
private information through the company’s ubiquitous data terminals to break
 Matthew Winkler, “Holding ourselves accountable,” Bloomberg News, May 13,
2013. The editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News states, “Our reporters should not
have access to any data considered proprietary. I am sorry they did. The error is
Factual errors in reporting of Newtown school massacre: The initial reports were rife
with errors, including the identity of the shooter. Most of these mistakes could be traced
to inaccurate information from police sources in the chaotic early minutes.
 Jack Shafer, “Newtown teaches us, once again, to discount early reports,” Reuters,
Dec. 17, 2012.
 Charles Lane, “Another casualty of shootings,” The Washington Post, Dec. 17, 2012.
 Rem Rieder, “The massacre miasma,” American Journalism Review, Dec. 19, 2012.
NPR’s mistake on Rep. Giffords: While covering the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
and others at a Tucson shopping center on Jan. 8, 2011, National Public Radio
erroneously reported that Giffords had died.
 Alicia Sheppard, “NPR’s Giffords mistake: Re-learning the lesson of checking
sources,” a report by the NPR ombudsman, Jan. 11, 2011.
 Rem Rieder, “When restraint pays off/Many news outlets ran with the story of Rep.
Gabrielle Giffords’ death, but not the AP,” American Journalism Review, Jan. 12,
 Related topic: Daniel Victor, “False Joe Paterno death report relied on faulty
sourcing,” ProPublica, Jan. 23, 2012. Victor traced the tweet by an independent,
student-run website that then was picked up by other news outlets. He said, quoting
the site’s co-founder, that the report was based on the work of two student reporters:
one who was snookered by a false e-mail, and one who overstated his knowledge of
Related topic: Rem Rieder, “Well, it might be the same guy,” American Journalism
Review, July 20, 2012. ABC’s Brian Ross reported that a person with the same name
as the shooter in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting was a member of the Tea Party.
But the Tea Party member proved not to be the shooter.
Related topic: Rem Rieder, “Another stumble for reeling CNN,” American
Journalism Review, June 28, 2012. “Its ratings sinking, the cable news pioneer makes
a high-profile mistake on the Supreme Court’s health care ruling.” Fox News made
the same error. Reporters were struggling to decipher a complicated court ruling in
Editing of a Q&A on video: In “The Spill,” an investigation of oil giant BP that aired on
PBS on Oct. 26, 2010, “Frontline” edited an interview with David J. Hayes, deputy
secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The answer to one question was made to
appear as though it was the answer to another question. Ombudsman Michael Getler
analyzed the case in “Frontline on BP: Helping the viewer or violating a fundamental,”
Nov. 2, 2010.
Contrasting guidance on the news: Editors and broadcast news directors from time to
time instruct their staffs on how to handle controversial and sometimes inaccurate terms
in the news. An appropriate purpose of such memos is to prescribe language that is
factually accurate and neutral in tone. The following examples offer a contrast:
 Tom Kent, “AP Standards Center issues staff advisory on covering New York City
mosque,” The Associated Press, Aug. 19, 2010. In the staff memo and a related
Facebook posting, Kent makes the point that the controversial mosque is not at
ground zero but two blocks away. The text of Kent’s memo is in:
 Joel Meares, “A ‘public option’ by any other name,” Columbia Journalism Review
Campaign Desk, Dec. 9, 2010. The watchdog organization Media Matters reported
that Fox News’ Washington editor directed reporters not to use the phrase “public
option” when discussing the health-care bill then being debated.
Turmoil at the BBC: Emily Bell, “What’s happening at the BBC,” Columbia Journalism
Review, Nov. 11, 2012. This is an analysis of the events that have led to a crisis over the
independence of the British Broadcasting Corporation. First, BBC commissioned but then
did not broadcast an investigation into child-molestation allegations against a now-dead
television presenter, Jimmy Savile. Then, after a rival organization broadcast a
documentary on the Savile allegations, BBC did a second investigation and broadcast it.
However, the BBC broadcast misidentified a public figure allegedly involved in childmolestation. Bell writes, “The original error from the point of view of the original scandal
was the decision of a news program not to run what now seems a good story. The critical
and fatal error was to run a story the BBC should never have allowed on the air.”
 John F. Burns and Alan Cowell, “Top BBC figures acknowledge ‘errors’ in reporting
scandals,” The New York Times, Nov. 27, 2012. Two senior executives said there
had been “basic” and “elementary” failures when BBC wrongly implicated a public
figure in sexual abuse.
An expert’s broadcast statement is questioned: In an interview on National Public Radio,
a behavioral expert said that if two dentists were asked to identify cavities from the same
X-ray of the same tooth, they would agree only half the time. The American Dental
Association challenged that statement by Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational:
The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Ultimately it was determined that Ariely
did not see or analyze any data that would support his statement. The episode raises the
question of a broadcaster’s duty – whether questionable statements should be noted and
double-checked before a taped interview is broadcast.
Alicia C. Shepard, “Should you be suspicious of your dentist or NPR’s source?”,
ombudsman’s blog, Nov. 4, 2010.
Tiger Woods: Paul Farhi, “Lost in the Woods: How the mainstream media too often
dropped sourcing standards and blindly followed the lead of the tabs and entertainment
Web sites during the Tiger Woods extravaganza,” American Journalism Review, March
Jessica Lynch: Esther Scott, “Reporting in the ‘Fog of War’: The story of Jessica Lynch,”
Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, 2004. Lynch honorably
served her country as a soldier and was wounded and captured, but she did not perform
the heroic acts that the Army passed along to the news media.
Minnesota Basketball Scandal: Geneva Overholser, “Minnesota basketball cheating
case,” in Tom Rosenstiel and Amy S. Mitchell (Eds.), Thinking Clearly: Cases in
Journalistic Decision-Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 82-109.
The journalists got the story right and were fair, but they still received criticism.
Particularly note the controversy over the timing of the story’s publication.
Columbine: Alicia C. Shepard, “Columbine school shooting: Live television coverage,”
in Rosenstiel and Mitchell (Eds.), Thinking Clearly, 57-81. Includes best-practice
guidelines developed after the shooting: for interviewing juveniles, for dealing with
phone callers who volunteer information, for covering bomb threats, and for covering
hostage-taking crises.
McCain/lobbyist: On Feb. 21, 2008, The New York Times published a 3,000-word article
about John McCain, who ultimately became the Republican candidate for president.
(“For McCain, self-confidence on ethics poses its own risks.”)
As Times public editor Clark Hoyt wrote, there was an uproar over “an assertion in
the second paragraph that during McCain’s first run for the White House [in 2000], some
of his top advisers became ‘convinced’ he was having a ‘romantic’ relationship with a
female lobbyist and intervened to protect the candidate from himself.” McCain and the
lobbyist denied they had an affair.
 “Talk to the Newsroom: The McCain article,”, editors respond to some
of the 4,000 questions raised by the public, Feb. 21, 2008,
 Kelly McBride, “Next steps on the McCain story; repeating what you don’t report,”
poynteronline, Feb. 21, 2008.
 David Folkenflik, “Times draws criticism for timing of McCain story,” National
Public Radio, Feb. 22, 2008.
 Howard Kurtz, “N.Y. Times gets flak from all sides on explosive story,” The
Washington Post, Feb. 22, 2008,
 Clark Hoyt, “What that McCain article didn’t say,” The New York Times, Feb. 24,
Wen Ho Lee: Lucinda Fleeson, “Rush to judgment,” American Journalism Review,
November 2000. A study of coverage of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born computer scientist
who ultimately was exonerated of allegations that he stole U.S. nuclear secrets for China.
Steven Hatfill: Rachel Smolkin, “Into the spotlight,” American Journalism Review,
November 2002. An FBI search of his home catapulted an obscure bioweapons expert
named Steven J. Hatfill into national prominence as a “person of interest” in the post9/11 anthrax investigation.
 Clark Hoyt, “Headlines and exonerations,” The New York Times, Aug. 17, 2008.
Reflections on the Steven Hatfill case.