When did accuracy become relative?

I should probably shut my mouth on this one. But I can’t.

I called out a journalist yesterday for two inaccuracies in her post promoting an upcoming news series. Here’s her response to my comment:

While I agree with you that accuracy is critical, not all subject matters warrent (sic) the same level of accuracy.

Forget the typo. Focus on the important question: When did accuracy become relative? In my 19 years on the faculty of a journalism school, no one ever told me that truth comes in “levels.” A fact is a fact because it can be verified.

Susan Arbetter, the Albany-based correspondent for WCNY, Syracuse, N.Y., sees it a little differently.

I found Arbetter’s story through a Google Alert that flags stories about my hometown: Indiana, Pa. What can I say? I still miss the place after 40 years. Apparently, so does Arbetter, who spent part of her childhood there, even attending the same elementary school as I.

In her promo for a series about oil and gas drilling, Arbetter describes Indiana as a small community “just a few miles from the West Virginia border.” Say what? Indiana is nearly 100 miles from West Virgina. No matter which definition of “few” you embrace, the number is always under 10. Why Arbetter moved our town 90 miles closer to West-by-God is anyone’s guess.

To shape the character of our little town, Arbetter also talks of heading “over to the Eat‘n Park for some homemade red devil’s food cake and a Rolling Rock.”

I don’t much care for beer and chocolate cake. But that’s OK, because you can’t get a beer at the Eat’n Park. The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, and Arbetter knew it.

Journalism students know that errors in fact are unforgivable. It’s beaten into their heads from Newswriting 101. Arbetter presents a relativist view of accuracy, based on what she calls “writer’s liberty.” From her response to my comment:

While I know that Eat ‘n Park doesn’t serve alcohal (sic), I wanted to give my listeners some western PA “color”. Rolling Rock, brewed in Latrobe was the beer of choice among the parents of my friends back then. And the Eat ‘n Park was an institution. Still is apparently. Putting the two together is a writer’s liberty.

Tell me I’m nitpicking if you’d like. Tell me the story will be much the same with or without Rolling Rock and devil’s food cake. That’s not the point. Once you learn that Eat’n Park isn’t a beer joint, and Indiana, Pa., isn’t all that close to West Virginia, you begin to doubt the veracity of the entire story, and maybe the outlet that carried it. Credibility suffers, all for a little “color.”

It’s OK to add color. It’s not OK to make stuff up.

I’m not a journalist, and I don’t play one in the classroom. But a lot of journalists depend on PR professionals to supply accurate information for the stories they write. So in our PR classes at Kent State, accuracy is more than a value, it’s an imperative. If you want folks to believe you, you gotta get it right.

So if you’re planning a trip to Indiana, Pa., call me. I don’t know much about the family restaurants, but I can tell you the best places to get a beer. Start with $3 Pitcher Night, Thursday’s at Sixers.

It’s not far from the Eat’n Park. A few miles :-)

And forget about the Rolling Rock, OK? They haven’t made that stuff in Latrobe, Pa., since 2006.

You want to tell her?

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32 Responses to When did accuracy become relative?

  1. When I catch journalists wrong on facts that I know about, it undermines my trust in the whole article. And if I remember their name, I tend to pay less attention to their other contributions. No, accuracy is not relative.

  2. Eric says:

    Wow. Unbelievable the lack of seriousness. Or is it arrogance, feeling you have the right to take such liberties with what you write.

    Good post.

  3. Bob Conrad says:

    Bill,

    This kind of nonsense is business-as-usual with many Nevada media, particularly the Reno Gazette-Journal (check out this page we had to put up because the RGJ REFUSED to put up complete, full documents related to this story: http://www.dcnr.nv.gov/documents/documents/antelope-valley-pesticide-container-site/

    At least you got the courtesy of a reply. I deal with this kind of thing daily; if anything, this is fairly minor compared with most of what I see.

  4. Blair Boone says:

    OK, here’s my question. If this reporter’s story, and her response to you (complete with typos), is representative of the mainstream media, why is everyone in a lather about it going away?

    After reading this post, I’d rather see her station disappear than your blog.

  5. Reid says:

    Her credibility is down the drain.

  6. Bill, great post! My mom and brother were in a bad car accident when I was in your classes at Kent, and one of the local papers actually reported my mom was dead. I still have the clipping. We had people calling the house to express condolences, and had to explain what happened, at a terrible time. That reporter should have been fired for not checking the facts. I truly don’t understand the ethics behind these levels of truth, but suspect it may be because they weren’t lucky enough to have a great prof like you. BTW, I heard your comments on the PRSA MultiCultural/Diversity merger. I was on the committee last year, it’s a mess.

  7. Dear Bill,

    For someone purportedly committed to accuracy I find it enlightening that you would mischaracterize what I wrote. Typos notwithstanding, as a working statehouse reporter in the capital of a state with an 8 billion dollar budget gap, I have a lot to do. However, I think you would agree that I responded politely and in a timely fashion? Which is more than I can say for how you treated me on your own blog.

    Because my blog is a creative outlet for me personally (I do not get paid for it), and it has, over the course of 3 years, tackled a mixture of both personal and professional issues and has acted as a sounding board for both fiction and non-fiction writing, I feel I can take creative liberties there that I never would take on the radio. I am paid to be a professional public radio reporter covering politics in Albany.

    Second, as you well know, I said distance is relative. 90 miles is indeed close to West Virginia if you are 700 miles from West Virginia. That you would even pick this fight is an indication that you see nothing wrong with stretching the bounds of truth to bolster a weak argument.

    This episode illustrates why consumers of news are frequently irritated by the two-dimensional tabloid-type journalism that inevitably exploits the lowest hanging fruit: those issues that are the easiest to “pick” for emotional impact. Why discuss Medicaid policy when it attracts more attention to focus on the attractive young couple who used their entitlement money to pay for ‘his and hers’ plastic surgery?

    What you didn’t tell your readers is this: That the focus of the blog I wrote was gas drilling. There are myriad legal, political and regulatory issues that surround drilling in New York’s southern tier, an economically depressed region, that will effect hundreds of thousands of people. This was the point of my post. Unfortunately, your readers don’t know that, because you omitted those details. Does that mean you weren’t accurate?

    Finally, and most importantly: Since I don’t know you, and your readers don’t know me, it has cost you nothing to take these potshots. Back in Indiana, I always learned you shouldn’t step on others to prop yourself up. I have spent my career building a reputation which you decided to tarnish simply to feed your ego.

    Bill, I demand an apology. If you are a gentleman and a journalist, you will offer me one.

    Susan Arbetter

    • Bob says:

      Susan, your response speaks volumes about how you and too many of your colleagues rationalize miscontextualizations, errors and other nonsense that unfortunately seem to typify your profession far too often. http://thegoodthebadthespin.com/2009/12/25/and-they-call-us-spin-doctors-part-5-of-6/

    • Bill wasn’t taking potshots at you whatsoever, Susan. And while I don’t know you, my guess is that if the two of you were to discuss this in person in a professional setting or at the Eat’n’Park in question, you’d both have a more cordial debate.

      Maybe not. Blogs allow us the liberty to express views and convictions from the comfort of our own coffee houses, no sugar, just cream please. Like Bill, I used to teach communications and my farewell tweet went something along the lines of “It’s blogging, nothing personal.”

      There’s a flip side to that statement. Like you, Bill takes a personal interest in Indiana, PA and adjusts his Google Alert filters accordingly. He also takes his blog, and all matters of professional communications, very seriously. As fellow practitioners, we are held accountable to higher standards of accuracy and fact checking. (This includes spell checking. I admit I slip at times in the spelling department, given the rapid-exchange nature of social media, though it makes the act of oversight no less egregious.)

      I read your blog post and I liked it a lot. You and I share a similar writing style and voice. You are fortunate to have a traditional mainstream media employer that frees to you blog and allows you creative license with your writing. Your “local color” argument notwithstanding, you can’t change facts, no matter how seemingly trivial. I’m sorry, but as a journalist you know better. It makes no difference whether you are reporting breaking news with the straightest of faces or breaking away from the toils of your state beat to localize a story with some heart. Facts are facts.

      I appreciate that you “have a lot to do” as you put it to Bill. But so does Bill. We all do. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of Bill’s former students so I pay a lot of attention to his blog. Bill isn’t always right and sweats the small stuff like nobody’s business, but that’s his job. He cares enough to highlight noteworthy posts such as yours to examine best practices as well as posit what can be done better for the sake of his readership.

      He’s not out to get you, Susan. In many respects, he’s on the same team. In olden days your piece would’ve never cleared the copy desk. Clearly times have changed but the fundamentals remain the same. Bill tends to be a stickler. He’s entitled. You opened your blog to discussion. He commented, you replied, and so it goes. I’m not saying the fundamentals are lost on you, Susan, as that would be an unfair presumption on my part. However, your rejoinder felt a bit prickly which left me wondering whether you let emotion get the best of you.

      I wish you well with your blog, Susan. And if you can ever decipher the cryptic “33” that appears on every bottle of Rolling Rock, I don’t care where it’s made anymore, your next red devil’s food cake is on me.

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’m glad you joined the discussion, Susan. While I’m not going to offer an apology, I am sorry that you’ve read my essay as a personal attack. Also, I never claimed to be a “journalist.” Whether I am a “gentleman” has been debated here a few times before.

    What I was attacking in this essay was a cavalier attitude toward accuracy that’s reflected in the notion of “writer’s liberty.” Such liberty invites distortion, and distortion violates the tenets of good journalism.

    As an educator in an accredited J-school, I saw this as a teachable moment for my students. I worried it might be perceived as harsh, but not personal, since we’ve never met and I know nothing of your work. Before writing the post, I asked a handful of my colleagues, all seasoned journalists, if they thought my comments to your blog were “out of line.” Each of them agreed with my negative assessment of “writer’s liberty,” and one was even more harsh that I was in this post.

    As to the “focus” of your blog post, I do say (in a boldface subhead) it was about “oil and gas drilling,” and I include 2 links to your blog. So readers can judge for themselves.

    I’m not one to hold bloggers to the same standards of truth and accuracy as mainstream journalists, Susan. But your blog is housed at timesunion.com, and the header identifies you as WCNY’s capitol reporter. So I can’t buy the argument that it’s a creative outlet unrelated to your day job. That’s simply not how it’s presented.

    In the end, this case reinforces for my students the lesson that our work is on public display each day — and blog posts are part of that work. What we publish is out there for everyone to consume and to judge, and we should expect that.

    Like you, Susan, I don’t make a dime from blogging. It’s not in my job description, either. But I treat it as part of my work, and I use it to reinforce lessons like this one.

  9. Kudos to Susan for weighing in above. I offer no opinion on Bill’s being a gentleman, but I overheard him at least once say both “please” and “thank you.” He’s not uncivilized.

    In defense of Susan: as a reader I discern distortions differently when the subject is devil cake as opposed to yellowcake. She’s not writing about WMD, thankfully. But that’s as far as I can go. There is a lesson here, for Bill’s students, for readers both here and at Susan’s blog, and for Susan. It’s about trust.

    While one may call it writer’s liberty, one must also consider the consequences of taking such liberties. When a fact is reported as a fact — and it’s blatantly wrong and the reader catches it — credibility evaporates. Even when it’s something as seemingly innocuous as the lack of alcohol available at the Eat’n Park. (How could a Clevelander, for instance, say that she or he lives a few miles from Canada? Or Michigan? The reader scratches his or her head and wonders, just what the hell does this writer know about this subject if he or she can’t get Fact X straight?) And that’s the point. A writer cannot assume, “My reader has never been to Indiana, Penn., and therefore wouldn’t be troubled over such trivialities.” Work in another way to get in your Rolling Rock reference.

  10. Bill Huey says:

    I agree that Susan needs to have more respect for fact as well as to brush up on her English usage (affect/effect, for example), but everyone knows that Pennsylvania is to the left of West Virginia and some miles to the west. No need to be more precise.
    The real earthshaking news here is that Rolling Rock is no longer brewed in Latrobe,PA. Where else on earth could it be brewed? Another piece of our American heritage lost.

  11. Polly Wade says:

    Yes, the statement is meant to add local color — no argument there. But if it’s inaccurate, the color is off.

    As an Atlantan transplanted from Cleveland, I find it frustrating when I hear/read things about my hometown that may be considered “local color” but are just wrong. I either stop reading/listening or get on my defensive bandstand. And I am one defensive Clevelander, let me tell you.

    I agree with Steve … it may seem innocuous, but find another way to work in the RR reference.

  12. Rich Becker says:

    Bill,

    This sparks too much thought for comment; some of it is best saved for a post.

    For now, suffice to say Ms. Arbetter is wrong on that point. As one of my journalism professors, Jake Highton, was found of quoting Joseph Pulitzer: “Accuracy! Accuracy!! Accuracy!!!” And then, just in case we did not get it, he would add “Accuracy about All Else.”

    I said the same thing last night in class, except to public relations students.

    All my best,
    Rich

  13. Greg Smith says:

    Clearly, the journalist in question is an idiot.

  14. Greg Smith says:

    More to the point, if she’s cant’s spell, then what chance does she have in presenting facts?

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’m not going to pile on here. But for the record, know that Susan’s comment (above) was also posted to her site at 6:31 a.m. yesterday (Feb. 12). I didn’t see it until late in the afternoon, when I posted this response (at 3:38 p.m.):

    Hi, Susan. I won’t insult you by posting my response here. But since you did post the above comment to my blog as well this one, anyone who’d like to see my response will find it here: http://bit.ly/9Odpyd

    That comment is awaiting moderation.
    Update 2/14/2010, 4:42 p.m.: Comment is still awaiting moderation.
    Update 2/15/2010, 1 p.m.: Comment is still awaiting moderation. But I’m beginning to get the hint.
    Update 2/16/2010, 10:53 p.m. The comment is now posted, along with a response. I’m satisfied. I’m gonna let this go.

    Update 2/17/2010: Sorry. I’m not gonna let this go after all. I failed to notice that my comment at Susan’s blog has NOT been approved (I missed the “in moderation line). She has edited the comments box to erase her rant, and her endorsement of “writer’s liberty.”

    This post has struck a chord with the professional journalists. And it should. But as I said in my earlier comment, the post was intended as a “teachable moment” and aimed at the students and professionals who read this blog. It was not intended as a vendetta against a journalist I’ve never met.

    Also, for the record, I don’t moderate comments on this site. I’ve removed only 2 comments (of more than 2,900) in the history of the blog. One was patently obscene, the other misrepresented the facts of a case being discussed. Sometimes the conversation gets pretty blunt, but that’s the nature of the blogosphere.

  16. [PC notice – there’s very little truth in any of the following. Now you’ll know I made it all up ahead of time. Remember, don’t call me on any of it. I admit it I lied, but I didn’t mean to?]

    I donut no how you can no what state you’re in when some 1 moves it 80 miles east. I get lost on my own street, so donut bette on mi mi mi mi.

    Where is Mark Twain when you need him? I’m sure he’d say something witty. Bill, you could become a reporter, but I’m afraid Miss Susan is destined to work for FoxNEWS. Those reporters are always mixing up Pres. Obama with former Pres. Bush. I mean, common on, really, could anyone believe anything that they report? Even the weather is way off. Maybe the meteorologist is confusing New York with Chicago. (80 miles…why not 800 miles next?) FoxNEWS had predicted a dusting of snow followed by a sunny day in the 40s the day Washington, DC, had the second big snowstorm. And when someone called them on it, they said that the White House had sent them the statement. Then Glen and Rush started fuming and fighting about who was going to play outside in the snow during the commercial break.

  17. One (ahem)thing that the average guy doesn’t know: There’s no truth in advertising. It’s all a trick to make him buy beer, trucks, pizza, hamburger helper, and Viagra. According to Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernaise, PR was all about making people want what you are selling, and it didn’t really matter what you say or do to achieve your purpose.
    “Bernaise believed that by fulfilling the unconscious desires of people would change a potentially unruly population into a controlled docile one. Bernaise invented the much used term ‘public relations,’ and used it to turn the population of the United States into consumers.” and
    “One would think that the population would eventually catch on to this trick, and perhaps some have, but the public relations business is stronger and more centralized than ever. Just a few short years ago, there were over 50 media stations broadcasting news to Americans. Now there are only five. This number could go lower soon, but at this point the company heads are all of one voice pounding out PR about whatever they want us to think we want. The journalism schools in the U.S. are very few and most have switched over to public relations. Journalists will soon go the way of the dinosaur if something does not change this horrible trend.”
    Tom Rushing. 2006. Controlling the Masses: From Religion to Bernaise. 08/30/06 “Information Clearing House”http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article14763.htm

  18. Bill Sledzik says:

    Oh, boy. I wish I didn’t have to respond. If this post didn’t focus on accuracy, I’d let it pass.

    Barbara, this will seem a bit unkind, but to steal a line from Dino’s comment, it’s nothing personal, it’s just blogging.

    The man you quote, Tom Rushing, comes across as a fool in his essay. If Rushing has done ANY research at all on his topic, he’d know how to spell the last name of Edward L. Bernays. I won’t go into his harebrained conspiracy theories about advertising and persuasion.

    And someone should tell Rushing there are a damn sight more than 5 media stations broadcasting news to Americans. I have that many within 15 miles of my house. He’s wrong.

    As to your own comment, a lot of folks blog and post blog comments with little attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation. That’s OK. This is a conversational environment, and I’m a flexible guy. But Barbara, your own website says your company offers “writing, copyediting, copywriting, and proofreading services to clients in many industries.” Doesn’t that hold you to a higher standard?

    Just as I believe Susan’s blog must live up to professional standards of journalism, should your comments not reflect a higher standard of writing? Just sayin’.

  19. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’m hoping this is the last comment I make on this post. If you read this far, you know that Susan posted a comment demanding an apology. That was Friday at 7:22 a.m. I posted a response explaining my position and why I wasn’t planning to apologize. That was at 8:46 a.m.

    When I learned Susan had posted the same comment to her own blog, I dropped by Friday afternoon to offer a terse response (see above) along with a link back to my longer comment posted here.

    Susan has yet to approve that comment some 72 hours after I posted it. At this point, I can only assume she will not. Maybe there’s a reasonable explanation. But for now — over at timesunion.com — it appears to Susan’s readers that I skipped out on the discussion.

    It’s your blog, Susan. You’re free to censor any comments you feel are in appropriate. But by leaving mine in moderation, your readers won’t see the reasonable and measured response I have offered.

    But I suspect that’s part of the plan.

    This isn’t how blog conversations are supposed to work, Susan. But that isn’t the only tenet of good journalism we disagree on, is it?

  20. Hi Bill,

    I sent you an apology to your website email last night. But I will repeat it here. I shouldn’t have quoted Tom Rushing’s article because of the many inaccuracies including the spelling of Bernays’ name. Please allow me to say mea culpa. I know better.

    Of course, throughout human existence people have used all kinds of honest and not-so-honest techniques to sell their ideas, products, possessions, unproductive gold mines, blind horses, etc. However, Bernays used his knowledge of human psychology to influence purchasing habits brilliantly. He recognized the advantage of modern communications systems and the media in spreading influence much further than had been possible in the past.

  21. April says:

    This past year I’ve had TWO nationally syndicated columnists fake interviews with my spokespersons. In both cases the journalist had not contacted me, my colleagues, the organization, the spokesperson, his family or any other organization he was affiliated with. One journalist just pulled information off of the organization’s Web site, which would’ve been fairly benign except that he got my spokesperson’s state wrong—bad since he was a volunteer with a fairly common name. I was shocked to find out that that columnist had won a Pulitzer decades earlier for covering the LA riots. The other columnist not only faked an interview but, as far as we could tell, made up facts and statistics about marijuana and oral health—and attributed them to the association I was working for. Because I had never contacted either in the first place, contacting them to get a correction proved impossible. Two different columnists covering two very different topics and they both faked an interview.
    Susan, although to you this detail was just smoothing out your writing, you need to take into account how people read. Most people only absorb parts or chunks of a story, even one this short. I wonder if the Eat‘n Park had any confused customers.
    At least Rolling Rock is still American made.

  22. Cheester in Albany says:

    There’s a word for what Ms. Arbetter wrote: fiction.

  23. Cheester in Albany says:

    And Susan: your blog reads more like an ad for your radio show than something that offers insight into what’s going on behind the walls of the Capitol.

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