BOB GARFIELD: One out of two stories in your daily newspaper and for that matter in this show probably will likely contain some type of mistake. It may be relatively small -- a grammar error or misspelled name -- or something more serious such as incorrect or out of context quotation. Despite the fact that inaccuracy is among the public's biggest complaints about the press, the 50 percent error rate has remained the same for decades, even among the nation's most respected news organizations. On the Media's John Solomon reports.
JOHN SOLOMON: The first time the average person realizes how many errors there are in the newspaper is usually when they read a story about a topic they know very well. That was no different for the editor of the nation's largest newspaper.
KAREN JURGENSEN: Virtually every story that was written about me when I took over as editor of USA Today had an error in it, and that was more than 3 years ago, and the track record hasn't changed much.
JOHN SOLOMON: Editor in chief Karen Jurgensen.
KAREN JURGENSEN: I was surprised and disheartened by that, and it made me think if I see errors, readers see them as well.
JOHN SOLOMON: She's not wrong about that. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press late last year found that only 47 percent of the public think the press quote, "gets the facts straight," unquote. That perception appears to be reality. Studies have continually shown that about half of all stories have an error in them. The newest analysis, a recently published academic survey of news sources of the Raleigh, North Carolina News Observer found that 59 percent of the articles printed in early 1999 had at least one mistake. Obviously, the first draft of history is not going to be perfect. Between spelling, statistics and precise quotations, hundreds of facts go into every story, usually written by human beings on deadline. While many errors are understandable, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says they shouldn't all be acceptable.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: The problem with accuracy is not that we get names misspelled but it's what inaccuracies say to the public about the press, and they say that maybe we're slipshod in general --that we're not entirely trustworthy as a profession - not because there are inaccuracies per se, but because we just don't seem to worry about this stuff.
JOHN SOLOMON: There are signs that the press is beginning to worry. After her own experience, Jurgensen launched an error-reduction program at USA Today and created a task force that will report its recommendations by the end of the year. The New York Times established a new position of corrections commissioner last year after top editors acknowledged the paper was making too many mistakes. And the American Society of Newspaper Editors recently completed its own initiative to bring attention to the problem. Practically every other American manufacturing business long ago underwent comprehensive anti-defect quality control programs. The media by and large has not gone through the same kind of re-engineering. But it appears change may be on the way. Karen Jurgensen.
KAREN JURGENSEN: We had an editor one day look at some of this material and say you know, some of these are the kinds of things that would involve a reporter taking the last 5 minutes of an interview and just saying now let me go over these facts again. Let's go over the spelling of your name again. [LAUGHS] Let's go over your age again. Some fairly basic things like that.
JOHN SOLOMON: The news organization which has addressed the error problem most extensively is the Chicago Tribune. It hired a retired editor to carefully review the paper for mistakes and then began tracking all errors by category. That immediately addressed some re-occurring trouble spots according to Margaret Holt, the Tribune's consumer service editor who manages the paper's quality control program. For example, in obituaries--
MARGARET HOLT: One year we found that something like two thirds of all the errors involved mistakes in either the time of the memorial service, the name of the deceased or the survivors or the date of the memorial service.
JOHN SOLOMON: Now each section of the paper receives a quarterly error report with results and any problematic trends. The highly quantitative analysis is key, says Holt, because what gets measured ultimately gets managed.
MARGARET HOLT: Numbers make it easier for people to visualize what the issues are that you're talking about. That's much more effective than being able to say golly, shucks, darn -- we need to do a better job, and we've got to stop making these stupid mistakes. People in the newsrooms are really smart people. They're not looking for people to point the finger at 'em and tell them how dumb they are. They're looking for people to say what are those? What can we learn from them and how might we do this?
JOHN SOLOMON: Finding answers to those questions should be particularly important to the press right now. The Pew survey revealed that in the eyes of the public, inaccuracy is second only to bias as a reason to distrust the press, and bias actually may be more a problem of accuracy than ideology. In fact, when news sources were polled in the study of the News Observer, those who complained about bias usually blamed process more than politics. University of Oregon journalism professor Scott Maier authored the study which was published in the Winter 2002 issue of Newspaper Research Journal.
SCOTT MAIER: I don't think they saw it as a political bias or agenda-setting but rather that the reporter just didn't take the time to put that story in context and to be fair and to present all points of view.
JOHN SOLOMON: Maier says the News Observer's willingness to allow his survey to be released to the public should be a model for other media organizations, and since the press will never be able to eliminate mistakes, more transparency might be a good way to help restore the media's credibility. The public doesn't expect the media to be perfect, but maybe a little bit more candid about its imperfections. For On the Media this is John Solomon.