Newspaper Writing - The Importance Of Accuracy
( Originally Published 1911 )
The surest guarantee for right-doing in journalism is contained in the teaching that right is always right and that it must be done for its own sake. This is the great basic truth to be taught the students of schools of journalism and impressed upon the minds of all newspaper workers. No other " endowment" than this of sound principles is to be desired, either for newspapers or individuals, because both must work out their own salvation in life's daily battle, which is won for the right only by those steadfast souls that fight for the sake of right alone.— From an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The haste and hurry of which so much is made may and does prevent polished work in a newspaper office. But it does not prevent accurate, careful, painstaking work. The history of the world which lay on your doorstep this morning is amazingly accurate; the mistakes in it are few and far between . . . The average high school of to-day turns out a variety of English that the best natured city editor consigns to perdition in seven tongues, and beats out of the aspiring cub without delay or remorse. And in the important matter of brevity and directness of saying what you have to say in the curtest and plainest phrase of which the language is capable, the newspaper is the greatest educator in the world.— From an article by GEORGE L. KNAPP.
A first essential of good news writing is accuracy. The word should be graven in the mind of every reporter and every editor. It is spoken by the city editor to his reporters almost every hour of his working day. Placards on the walls may call attention to it, as in some offices where, with laudable brevity, the motto is urged upon the staff:
If a story is accurate, if it is written with a nice attention to detail, it is likely to be fair. If a story is not accurate, it is not news in the best sense.
Accuracy implies more than mere grammatical correctness. It means more even than the stating of every fact with precision. A story may be taken to pieces, fact by fact, and every sentence found to be correct; yet the whole may give a false impression. Accuracy means the spirit as well as the letter of the truth.
Truthful, precise writing is the fruit of accurate observation. If one would write news, he must learn first to see news clearly and without prejudice. Therein the trained reporter excels the casual observer. The one has learned to observe keenly; the other, well equipped though he may be in the rules of rhetoric, has not schooled himself in the business of seeing things with an eye single to getting the facts in right proportion. Learn to observe and you will have gone far toward mastering the art of news getting and news writing. Casual observation is nearly always faulty. Take for example the conflicting statements of persons on the witness stand. One man, telling his version of an automobile accident, swears the car was going fully thirty miles an hour, another is certain the speed was only eight miles ; one heard the driver sound a warning " honk," another is equally positive no warning was given. Each witness is a reputable citizen and each thinks his version is the truth. The discrepancy in their testimony is due, not to any effort to deceive, but to the common failure to observe care-fully.
It is the business of the newspaper man, whose eyes must serve thousands of readers each day, to see rightly what others see imperfectly or not at all. He is subject to the same human limitations as the others, but he must make it his duty, by training his mind and his eye, to reduce those limitations to the minimum. Then, and then only, can he gather and write news with the maximum of efficiency.
In giving names and street addresses there is special need of accuracy. Watch, too, the spelling of all the words in your copy. Remember the dictionary is made for use.
The average good citizen likes to see his name in print, but he is deeply offended at seeing it misspelled. Smythe's name is a thing peculiarly his own; he can never cherish any particular regard for the newspaper that persists in calling him Smith. So with Browne and Maughs and Willson. Their names are not Brown, Moss, Wilson. A reader whose name is misspelled feels, unconsciously perhaps, that he has been robbed of some intimate possession. A blow has been aimed at his individuality. To paraphrase a great reporter of life, his " good name " has been stolen, and as a good citizen he resents the theft.
The misplacing of an initial or the careless dropping of a letter from a name may cost the newspaper a subscriber. Certainly it convicts the paper of inaccuracy in one man's eyes. He reasons that if the paper is mistaken in the spelling of his name, it may be guilty of other grave inaccuracies in its news. His faith in the paper is shaken. And the newspaper that loses the faith of its readers is in danger of losing the good will that is its chief as-set.
Care should be taken in the writing of street ad-dresses. The difference between two street numbers may represent the difference between respectability and its opposite. A serious injustice may be done a person by printing his name with the wrong street address. Such a mistake was made not long ago by a western newspaper, which gave an address in a neighborhood of doubtful reputation to a citizen of high standing. As a result of the writer's carelessness the newspaper was sued for libel.
The reporter should be constantly on his guard in taking down the addresses given by unknown persons. Especially is this true with reference to the data furnished by criminals for the police " blotter." It is a common practice of habitual criminals to give as their own the addresses of reputable citizens.
Learn all you can of the city in which you work.
Such knowledge will be invaluable as a safeguard against many pitfalls. The city directory is an excellent guide, but sometimes is inaccurate.
Spell correctly. This applies not alone to proper names. Some news writers are prone to shift the burden of spelling to the man who edits the copy or to the proofreader. Doubtless there are many brilliant news gatherers who are deficient in spelling, but, other things being equal, the man who spells correctly is preferred to him who is slovenly in this respect. Bad spelling, though not fatal to a writer's chances, is often a sign of lazy habits of mind. The precise thinker, as a rule, has too much regard for the tools of his trade—his words—to abuse them. The city editor judges the new man largely by his copy. The story that shows attention to spelling, to all the little niceties of writing, assuredly has a better chance of a favorable reception than the story, of equal news value, that be-trays carelessness.
If any hard-and-fast first principle relating to accuracy can be laid down, it is this : Get the names right. Once this principle is grounded in the mind of the reporter, he is fairly sure to strive for accuracy in all the details of his story.
Persons who know nothing of the inner workings of the newspaper office may profess to believe that stories are written without regard to accuracy and are thrown into type haphazard, just as they come from the writers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A newspaper that permitted such a condition would be swamped with libel suits within a week. In every newspaper office, certainly in every newspaper office worthy the name, there is an unceasing war against inaccuracy of every kind. The new reporter learns this when he comes in jubilant from an assignment, only to be sent back to get the middle initial of a name. The out-of-town correspondent learns it when he is called from his bed by long-distance telephone to explain a vague statement in a story he had wired earlier in the night. When one considers the difficulties under which news is gathered and the limited time at the news-paper's command, the wonder is not that errors occasionally creep into the news columns but that the errors are so few.
The newspaper as it goes to the reader, though it is the product of many very human persons working under pressure, is remarkably accurate. A painstaking effort has been made to give the reader a true picture of the day's happenings. Copy readers have gone over the reporters' copy for errors of fact and of style; proofreaders have corrected typographical errors after the matter has been set in type; one or more editors have read the revised proofs with an eye single to detecting faults.
The newspaper, of all modern institutions, is the most human. It is written by, for and about men and women. Its failings are the common failings of humankind. Forewarned thus against himself, it is the duty of the news writer, even while he works with one eye on the clock, to be always vigilant in the battle against inaccuracy — to do his full share, and more, in keeping the columns of his paper free from misstatement of every kind.
SUGGESTIONS FOR HOME OR CLASS-ROOM STUDY
The following stories are presented, not for any specific bearing on the discussion of accuracy, but as " horrible examples " of bad news writing 'in general. Inaccuracy in a news story seldom stands alone as a fault, because if a story is inaccurate the chances are it is deficient in other respects. The writer who does not take his work seriously enough to get his facts correct is not likely to pay attention to style. The stories here reproduced may serve as a warning against some of the faults pointed out in the preceding chapters.
1. This and the story under II show the absurdity of attempted " fine writing " : Shrouded in deep mystery and in spite of the fact that strenuous efforts were made to keep the details of the affair secret, startling facts regarding the robbery of the Blank sorority house came to light yesterday. The house was entered by a burglar some time during the Christmas recess and some valuable silverware was taken.
But this is not all. Although when interviewed on the subject the members of the sorority refused to give any of the details to the public, some unique traits have developed in the burglar which may enable an ambitious Sherlock to unravel as deep a mystery as has ever puzzled Pinkerton's band of trained sleuths.
(Query: Isn't it about time to give the word " strenuous " a needed rest?)
II. The story of a death was told thus in a small newspaper:
Mrs. Eliza Williams, mother of Mrs. Geo. Brown, was released from her physical surroundings Saturday morning at ten o'clock and called to occupy a building, a house not made with hands eternally in the heavens. She has been in this earth life 87 years.
(Evidently the foregoing means : " Mrs. Eliza Williams, mother of Mrs. George Brown, died at 10 o'clock Saturday morning. She was 87 years old." The simplest style is always the best in writing of death. Say "body," not "remains "coffin," not "casket "; "the dead man (or woman)," not "the deceased " or "the defunct." " Burial " is better than " interment." " The late " is nearly always useless. " Obsequies " implies that the ceremonies were imposing ; in most cases " funeral" is the proper word. Never use a flip-pant word in a death story. In all news writing spell out proper names : e. g., George," not " Geo." Most newspapers use numerals in giving the hour, as to o'clock. It is usually preferable to place the hour before the day; thus, " at to o'clock Saturday morning." Be careful to refer to the dead in the past tense; the verb in the last sentence of the story quoted should be "had been.")
III. Note the use of cheap slang in the following story :
Fred Smith, a young man about 18 or 19 years old, who formerly resided in this neighborhood but more recently at Jonesburg, had been boozing at the saloon all day and in the evening walked out of that burg on the railroad track. He evidently fell with his head down on one side of the dump and one foot over the rail. The 7 o'clock passenger struck him and mashed the foot. He was picked up by the train crew and brought to town and received medical attention.
(It is seldom in good taste, nor is it safe, to accuse a person of drunkenness. Bear in mind the injunction : Tell the facts and let the reader draw his own conclusions.)