Is story colour at the expense of accuracy OK?

I’m of the opinion that journalists need to be careful to record facts as facts and opinion as opinion. Blurring the two is problematic as it can imply that something that’s little more than a hunch is based on empirical data, or that supposedly empirical data is in fact just a good guess. However, there are other aspects to reporting where the issues are less clear.

It’s routine for example that quotes by a person be broken up and distributed around a story to give it a better read. The sentences uttered in interview or in correspondence might appear on the page in a different order to originally given, or bits snipped or tweaked to make them more readable. Ideally the person being quoted should have the chance to approve these things, but I appreciate that it’s not always possible. Certainly I have seen multiple outlets provide direct quotes attributes to someone that are clearly different from each other and the actual original words. They might all capture the substance of the comments and be generally accurate and stylistically correct, but they are quite definitely not the direct and exact words spoken as the use of  ” “s would indicate.

Similarly, the use of colour in a story often seems to be just created out of nothing. The kind of thing where they want to provide a scene or give a human angle to the story, “It has been a long and hard time in the field, but on the last day, they struck gold”, “deep in the basement of the institute, researchers pour over their latest discoveries” etc.  I’ve seen a number of these that are simply fabricated since that are about research projects I was involved in and they didn’t happen. They are either assumed to have happened (which seems lazy at best) or were made up (which is clearly incorrect practice as far as I’m concerned).

In both these cases I must say this practice bothers me. It implies truth and accuracy where it is simply not the case. The words were not spoken like that in this way, and the supposed events to provide colour are assumed at best, inaccurate or indeed fabricated at worst. This does seem to be pervasive and all but considered normal practice, but should it be? I can see an argument that it does no real harm and draws in the reader / makes things clearer or cleaner etc. but to me this simply does not wash. You are there to provide the facts and explain the facts. Even if ancillary to the point, these things are incorrect. If you don’t know, don’t guess or make it up. You are a journalist, it’s your *job* to find these things out. If the quotes don’t work, then paraphrase or discuss them (or get some new ones), don’t rewrite them to suit the story and claim they are genuine. It might not be critical to the story (i.e. the facts of the science) but surely it is a measure of trust between the reader and the writer that those things actually happened (however incidental). If they did not, it’s hard for me to escape the simple conclusion that this is not to be trusted.

9 Responses to “Is story colour at the expense of accuracy OK?”


  1. 1 qilong 04/05/2010 at 4:24 pm

    There seem to be two kinds of journalists: newsfolk, and tale-tellers. One may be inclined to call the latter something other than a journalist, however, as they present their story in a way quite different from one another. Your typical newsman “tells it like it is,” and is rather “just the facts man.” This is good for important, front-page stuff, which is headline based. However, pieces that appeal to folks like you and I (subsets rather than general interest) are certainly less engaging (most of which are appealing to people who read the papers they’re based on) require a more engaging, personable writing style. This also works in documentaries. Such a writing style desires to engage a different part of the human brain, much less type of individual, and is more “wow” and “new” relevant than it is “details” and “logic”. Editors also like the latter, rather than the former, and this is also true when rating impact of papers and accessibility. It seems fairly give-and-take.

    • 2 David Hone 04/05/2010 at 4:46 pm

      Sorry, not sure I see the point here at all realtive to what I was trying to say. I’m not criticising the *style*, the ‘how’ or ‘why’ different stories are presented. I’m saying that it’s pretty clear in a number of cases that things are being made up in order to try and make those stories more like the latter type you describe.

      It’s not the style but the content. If they want to say “It was a long hard dig, and the team were packing up and preparing to go home when they struck gold and found a new dinosaurs buried in the sands on their last day”, then fine. What’s NOT fine is when they write that and the dig was based in a hotel, was very easy and the specimen was given to them by a museum on the way home.

      • 3 qilong 06/05/2010 at 12:31 pm

        You mention the topic under “colour” of the subject, and the task of tyhe journalist. You do this while talking about facts, but not in the presentation of facts by themselves versus facts within a story context. That is, you’re not necessarily discussing outright falsification. This is a matter of “framing” as well as audience-targetted terminology usage (very often different depending on lay versus educated readers).

        When most “journalists” blatantly lie about the details of their story, they are a step beyond the George Wills of the information networks, who simply do not do footwork necessary to correctly frame or research their works. One can be acknoweldged that in George Will’s problematic history with fact-checking, he simply didn’t follow through, for a vbariety of reasons, of the various “facts” which he felt he was dutifully or honestly reporting. You are talking NOW about outright fabrication. Not the same thing.

        You seem to be saying, and hgere is why I disagree with you, that bringing up “ancillary” topics is just wrong in the full context of the story. Even George Will’s “work” doesn’t qualify as each of the data points he draws from are “technically” correct on their own; many of them are simply inapplicable or are “coloured” by other self-blinded “journalists”. This makes George Will a bad journalist, but a liar (especially in context to the fact that he would have opened himself up to defamation by lying about people’s actions/words.

        Do you have a clear example where a story is “wrong” because it didn’t take a journalistic approach to it, wasn’t correctly “coloured”?

      • 4 David Hone 06/05/2010 at 12:55 pm

        “You mention the topic under “colour” of the subject, and the task of tyhe journalist. You do this while talking about facts, but not in the presentation of facts by themselves versus facts within a story context. That is, you’re not necessarily discussing outright falsification. ”

        But I *am* talking about falsification, if if a minor issue. Saying that “Dr Hone says dinosaurs evolved from rabbits” and that “Dr Hone, sitting in his blue painted office, surrounded by fossils, today talked about his new paper on dinosaurs”. Both are untrue. My office isn’t blue, and it’s not full of fossils (right now). One is a massive distortion of reality and entirely at odds with my research and opinion. The other is effectively irrelevant, but still untrue.

        My point is NOT how stories are written up. If you want to talk about the colour of my office or how the field season was going, or who said what when the dinosaurs was first discovered. This to me is adding ‘colour’ to the story. Some background, some extra information, even some hyperbole. Going beyond the base “it was 1m long and ate lizards and was found in Mongolia and was related to tyrannosaurs” is fine. *However*, I think that is you are doing that, you need to make sure that it is right too. Just *saying* “in his blue office, surrounded by fossils” is not OK if it is not true.

        It’s not a question of how, but what. And even if that ‘what’ is pretty minor, I think it should be accurate. And if not, it risks the trust of the audience in the authrority and truth of the words of the journalist even if ultimately the colour of the office is irrelevant.

        “You seem to be saying, and here is why I disagree with you, that bringing up “ancillary” topics is just wrong in the full context of the story. ”
        Not at all, and I’m not sure how you read that from my words (of course I wrote them so I knew what I meant, but I’m still not sure where you got that). At the very least, my first reply should have cleared that up where I say I don’t care about the style and my post is solely about the content.

  2. 5 Traumador the Tyrannosaur 04/05/2010 at 11:56 pm

    the sad part is most journalists are taught at the beginning of their careers in university to lie and fabricate good stories. this is due to the truth of the news industry, it is just that an industry. the journalists are told that they must make material interesting, and thus approachable by the biggest audience and to hell with inconvinent things like facts and the truth.

    my favourite example was a good journalism friend of mine in uni who worked for the student newspaper. one day i had one of my professors approach me and start hounding me about my opinion on a certain university policy that was being implemented. the only problem was i had no opinion nor had i even heard of this new policy. the prof (who had helped draft the policy) didn’t drop the matter, and in fact insisted i accompany him to his office after class. where he angerily showed me an article where i was quoted opposing this policy. i was naturally perplex, and confused. especially as i was quoted as saying a bunch of BS i would never say… the author of this piece, you guessed it, my friend at the paper.

    it turned out whenever he couldn’t find someone to interview for a certain counter point, he’d make one up and insert the name of one of his friends. which on the surface might sound completely terrible on his part, but you do have to take his perspective into account. not that i’m saying he was right, but reporters are just the poor little guy on their side of the equation. the whole industry is F***ed up!

    the reason he couldn’t take the time to find a proper quote? the news is a business that is not a truth seeking operation, it is there to sell the news (in various media). time is money therefore, and if you spend more than your alloted time on one story making sure it is “correct” you won’t get paid for the day.

    reporters have quotos they need to meet each day to earn their salary. in such a system you can understand why these poor people aren’t double checking everything. they need to file a story by a certain time, or it won’t make the day’s edition, and therefore someone else’s story will have to fill its place.

    further more editors are really nasty people typically (my buddy took me into work with him years later at one of the cities major newspapers. his boss was jay jona jameson from spider-man… i kid you not! apart from lacking the mustache) and they really don’t care about the truth, just that a story is on time, long enough, and properly edited. the content they couldn’t give a crap about. they care about filling for the day’s edition and that is it, and will take it out on their reporters without a moments notice!

    so then why did my friend need to use mine and other real people’s names if they don’t care about the truth? the irony is that despite how not committed to the truth the media is, they have a fake image of accountibility and dedication to the truth to up hold. now the synic in me would say this is to keep a gullible and stupid populice in their thrull, but in reality they have to worry about getting authentic sources to counter lawsuits. if they make up quotes or “facts” in a story and get caught, news agencies can get the pants sued off them! by having real people providing “opinions” the news agency is off the hook, as they are simply presenting someone elses opinion. if they make up sources than they are taking a stance.

    my friend was using mine and other friends names so that if anyone called him on his making up stand points or facts he could bring us in to say we had said what we had said… which is what he levelled with me when i passed on my prof’s anger to him. as a full time student my friend back then REALLY didn’t have time to proper research a story, and as the paper was small enough he thought inserting fake interviews in it was acceptable. afterall no one really read the student paper, and the reporters in it were just there to get portfolio material (and a very tiny pay check).

    after hearing the explaniation and being a young stupid person back in the day (wow that was 10 years ago! i’m getting old), and not particularly liking the prof in the first place i didn’t push the matter. i really should have fought this and forced the paper to print a retraction, but i didn’t want to get my friend in trouble. if he pulled that stunt on my these days i would in a heart beat (however he has seen the light and no longer works in the news industry).

    before i have any journalism people try to counter by saying i haven’t work the biz, they shouldn’t bother. not only did i follow my friends career closely (we were and still are very close friends), i had a year long gig as a production assistiant in the local TV stations bullpin, and while there i really learned how uncommitted to the truth reporters were.

    though if people want i have plenty of great stories from those days, like the reporter who refused to believe amphibians had backbones, another who tried to completelymake up a geographic location for a town (they mistyped its name in google earth, and decided since it “wasn’t there” they could make it up), and the reporter who reported on air that oil and gas was made by volcanoes…

    • 6 David Hone 05/05/2010 at 7:49 am

      That is genuinely depressing.

      “the news is a business that is not a truth seeking operation, it is there to sell the news (in various media).”

      Well that might, sadly, be true. But I’d argue that by selling the ‘news’ they are. in theory at least, selling ‘what happened’, i.e. what is true. Either they are telling the truth or not and if not, then it’s not news and should not be sold. Is that really unreasonable?

  3. 7 Tor Bertin 05/05/2010 at 3:03 am

    One thing I think that we’ll start to see more of, especially for international reporting, is the use of outside commercial news reporting agencies. For example, the Common Language project: as an independent business, they travel across the world to cover issues that otherwise would be completely unseen, and sell the stories they write to different news agencies.

    The news agencies often times would like to report on international issues, but don’t have the money (or don’t want to spend the money) to set up an independent base station for their own reporters. I hope that this strategy is used more often, since from what I’ve seen, not only is the material written from outside news groups better content-wise, it often tends to be better written as well, since they don’t have the ‘boss breathing down the neck’ problem.

    From what I understand, they gave a lecture at the TEDx event in Seattle, which should be up for viewing sometime soon.

  4. 8 qilong 07/05/2010 at 4:19 pm

    Dave:

    Not at all, and I’m not sure how you read that from my words (of course I wrote them so I knew what I meant, but I’m still not sure where you got that).

    I’m sure you know what you meant, and it’s quite possible what you are sure of is accurate. I cannot prove it, but you word must be taken as it is. This is what you wrote (I’m quote mining, since it’s not the whole paragraph):

    can see an argument that it does no real harm and draws in the reader / makes things clearer or cleaner etc. but to me this simply does not wash. You are there to provide the facts and explain the facts. Even if ancillary to the point, these things are incorrect.

    Extraneous elements of the story (e.g., the backdrop) provide color to the story, a setting that has absolutely nothing to do with the play in the field. It is like mentioning the beauty of the mountains in which the Nemegt Formation is exposed, and talking about the color interchange on the rocks facing west as the sun falls towards its setting. This is ancillary, but it is not incorrect. It is, in fact, intrinsic to the story itself that such an exposition of setting be used.

    Here’s a science-y example: Most papers as part of their introductions and historical background include topics and elements of that which they are talking about that have NOTHING to do with the premise of the paper. They aren’t even ancillary but are irrelevant, and are only used to provide historical background for those that care for such things. Most papers have them, even dry technical works, and this is enforced in science writing classes.

    So, let’s say I want to redescribe ANSP 9259, the holotype tooth of Troodon formosus; that’s all. How many paragraphs should I include talking not about the morphology of the tooth, but other people who talked about it, where it was found, and the behavior of Joseph Leidy when he named it? If the answer is less than 1, you have the perfect science paper, but why should anyone CARE?

    • 9 David Hone 07/05/2010 at 4:44 pm

      I’m sorry, I *really* still can’t see how you have got this for me. Perhaps in the original post, but not after my clarifications.

      No, there is noting wrong at all with saying the mountains are beautiful, the sky is clear, the rocks are exciting, the sunsets are beautiful on the rock faces. This is in fact good. I agree.

      What is NOT OK (I think, hence the intended discussion) is saying the sky is clear when it’s grey, or the sunsets strike the rocks with it’s the sunrise that does. It might be ancillary to the story and only there to provide background and colour and exposition, but if it is not true it should not be there (I think).

      OK? Colour *good*, but ONLY if accurate.

      EDIT:
      This part BTW ““can see an argument that it does no real harm and draws in the reader / makes things clearer or cleaner etc. but to me this simply does not wash. You are there to provide the facts and explain the facts. Even if ancillary to the point, these things are incorrect.””
      Was supposed to refer ONLY to inaccuracies in colour, not colour itself. My point being some may consider it OK to add colour that is not accurate since it is only colour for the story and not the story itself. I was NOT suggesting that colour itself was inherently bad and should not be included.


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