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?