Research (Vol. 55) Exploring how college media advisers teach accuracy

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Putting accuracy education theory into practice

By Kirstie Hettinga
California Lutheran University

Accuracy — Hitting the Target in journalism education

Abstract: Accuracy is the foundation of news media, but how and where journalism students learn about accuracy may be less understood. Previous research found that popular journalism textbooks varied in covering this topic. If textbooks are not teaching accuracy, where do students learn about being accurate? Eleven current advisers representing four-year public and private schools as well as community colleges participated in a moderated discussion at the 2017 Associated Collegiate Press midwinter convention. The participants were most interested in activities and assignments to practice being accurate, rather than higher-level discussions of accuracy. Directions for future research are also discussed. 

Introduction

In the wake of the 2017 inauguration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that new President Donald Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration” (Hirschfield and Rosenberg 2017). Later, in an NBC interview, when challenged about what Spicer said, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway argued that while members of the press were referring to the statement as a falsehood, Spicer had merely given “alternative facts” (Jaffe 2017). However, in a discussion with Brian Stelter on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, declared, “We teach no courses in our journalism program about alternative facts… We will flunk you if you use alternative facts” (CNN Video 2017).

So, with the highest office of the United States in a battle with news media, and purporting that there are variations of truth, how do students determine what is true, factual, and accurate? Indeed, as even high school publications get accused of being “fake news” (Honan 2017) there is greater pressure than ever before to teach media literacy to all, not just students pursuing careers in journalism. For those students who may wish to pursue careers in journalism, this may be a golden opportunity, as CNN anchor Michael Smerconish and Newsweek contributor and author Kurt Eichenwald have both suggested that the time is ripe for a new golden age of journalism. “Where there’s no investigative journalism, government at a local, state and national level goes unchecked,” Smerconish said (King 2017, para. 8).

Similarly, journalism educators may be identifying this new antagonism between the press and the powerful as a call to action. In March 2017, the much-lauded Missouri School of Journalism announced a new strategic plan that “equips young journalists to serve as watchdogs over the powerful and prepares them for legitimate reporting the day they graduate,” Dean David Kurpius said. “Truth-seeking and honest and fair reporting have many opportunities for a new golden age” (Heiman 2017).

Upholding ethical standards—seeking truth, minimizing harm, acting independently and being accountable—requires a refocusing on the very foundations of journalism. Educators around the globe recently reemphasized the importance of “journalism essentials” (Hare 2017). Perhaps the most critical aspect of journalism is its dedication to accuracy, so it is necessary to understand how that skill is taught to young journalists who are on the brink of a new golden age in journalism.

Literature Review

Accuracy in reporting news is of paramount importance. Your story may affect industry, the stock market, may lose a man his job, may cause a bankruptcy, may lead to a divorce, a suicide or a murder. The slightest error is a glaring one to those who know. Every news story affects someone; if not, it’s not news.

In this 1929 United Press International manual, accuracy is described as something with tremendous power—bad reporting can equal death (Nelson 2002, 518). Similarly, a 1919 Desk Book from the then-Department of Agricultural Journalism at Iowa State College established 13 “commandments,” which included “Accuracy always” as its top priority (Bugeja 2006, 14). In writing about the evolution of the ombudsman position at The New York World, Nemeth detailed the creation of the Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play and wrote that the mission statement was “Accuracy and fair play are inseparable in journalism because inaccuracy often results in unfairness” (Nemeth 2010, 39).  And while “fake news” may seem like the hot topic of the day, part of the responsibility of the bureau was “to stamp out fakes and fakers” (Nemeth 2010, 39).

But accuracy and verification harken back to oral cultures. In “A History of News,” Stephens wrote, “A Bedouin scout’s report on the fertility of a pasture could hardly be doubted if he was carrying an armful of grass” (Stephens 2007, 29). But while accuracy on its surface seems like an easily definable concept, previous research suggests that it’s not that straightforward. For example, (Hettinga 2012) found that editors from major publications with a combined century of experience expressed slight variations in their definitions of accuracy. One indicated that “accuracy exists in context” while another highlighted that were some “absolutes.” Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride ultimately suggested that accuracy is the result of the practice of quality journalism (Hettinga 2012).

Accuracy education

A growing demand for information literacy, and the ability for the students to identify “fake news” ultimately has its roots in teaching students what is truthful and accurate, and how to identify the same. For the student journalist, information literacy also extends to assessing raw information and being able to assess the strength and reliability of the source providing the information.

In 2006, the Association of College and Research Libraries’ communication studies committee collaborated with scholarly groups such as the National Communication Association and professional journalism organizations to propose “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Journalism Students and Professionals” (ACRL 2006). For journalism students specifically, the committee wrote that “Journalism students and professionals who cultivate information literacy competencies are better able to select, critically read, and ethically use information” (ACRL 2006, 274).  The committee asserted that strong information literacy backgrounds allowed journalists to produce “accurate and quality work” (ACRL 2006,  275).  In proposing five different standards, item three addressed accuracy and stated that the student or professional should have the ability to evaluate “information gathered for accuracy, balance, and relevance” (ACRL 2006, 278). Among the outcomes of the standard, the committee indicated that journalists—professional and student—should be able to quote sources accurately, and assess “the credibility of information gathered” (ACRL 2006, 278). Under the fifth standard proposed by the committee, which address ethical and legal standards, accurate attribution is also noted as a desired outcome.

While information literacy standards seem to have emerged in the age of Internet and its surfeit of information, teaching accuracy is connected to the professionalization of journalism. In exploring the history of journalism education, Folkerts observed that the National Press Club adopted then-Missouri School of Journalism leader Walter Williams’ 1914 “journalist creed,” which stated in part “I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness, are fundamental to good journalism” (Folkerts 2014, 232).

How modern educators teach accuracy may be less understood. While textbooks are pervasive on college campuses, those in communication and journalism programs may not dedicate much time or space to covering that critical topic. (Hettinga 2016) examined 10 popular news reporting and writing textbooks and found that they were limited in their coverage of accuracy. Out of the 10 examined, only one, Vince Filak’s (2015) “Dynamics of Media Writing,” dedicated an entire chapter to the subject, while in the popular text Tim Harrower’s (2012) “Inside Reporting” accuracy didn’t even warrant a mention in the index.

Other previous research suggests that hands-on accuracy “checks” are one way to help educate students. For example, Dodd, Mays and Tipton (1997) surveyed sources of student journalists’ articles about accuracy. The sources indicated that mistakes happened even with the best student journalists. “Having the sources point out these errors can help students recognize the necessity of improving their skills in verifying information and accurately taking notes” (Dodd et. al 1997, 51) while faculty can examine how they teach these practices. Students in the Dodd study, as well as earlier research using an accuracy survey to assess student journalists (Ryan 1975), reported benefiting from getting source feedback.

With some journalism textbooks dedicating less time and space to covering the topic of accuracy, educators may find the need to supplement accuracy instruction. This may be occurring in the more hands-on, experiential education setting of student newsrooms. There, the educators are often identified as “advisers” and may be academics who also teach classes, or exclusively staff members, often former journalists, who advise student media in full- or part-time capacities (Kopenhaver 2015).

The role of advisers

Much research related to advising student media addresses issues of censorship. For example, Filak explored whether college newspaper editors’ tendency to self-censor was influenced by those editors’ perceptions of their advisers’ comfort level with controversial topics. Miller also addressed how administrators seek to balance a free student press with the needs of their institutions (Miller 2008). In exploring college media advisers’ experience Steelman found support for advisers’ passion and dedication to prepare students for their futures (Steelman 2016):

The main objective of the student newspaper adviser is to encourage professional journalistic standards in the writing, editing, and management of the student newspaper. Promotes dedication by the newspaper staff to publication of fair, accurate, well-prepared, and wide-ranging news and feature stories of interest to the university community. To this end the adviser encourages standards of responsible editorial judgment, taste, ethics, and sensitivity to the needs and interests of all constituents of the university community, as well as a commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and inquiry. (Nevisky 2007, 40-41)

Advising student media is, perhaps, an unenviable task. Demas noted that among campus advisers of television and radio, advising student media was seen a barrier to achieving tenure. For those who were on tenure track, they considered their work as advisers undervalued and observed that the work is time consuming—to the point that it hindered their ability to conduct research. The self-reporting advisers also expressed some fear for job security and “believe tenure is essential toward security in a position where students making bad decisions can cost advisers their jobs” (Demas 2006, p. 25). This fear may be anecdotal, but there is evidence to the fact that advisers have lost jobs over student work. Loni McKown, a professor of practice at Butler, was removed from the position of adviser to The Butler Collegian in 2015. She attributed her removal to investigative reporting that was unfavorable to the university (New 2015). Similarly, the tenured faculty adviser to the student publication at Mount St. Mary’s was fired, and then reinstated, after the student newspaper published quotes by the university’s new president that were unflattering. The adviser, Ed Egan, also attributed his firing to the student newspaper’s reporting (Will 2016).

Advising student media is a high-pressure job. While an overwhelming majority of advisers enjoy working with students, more than half report wanting to quit within five years (Bodle 1993). Heavy workloads, underappreciation and concern for administrative censorship were some of the stressors identified by college media advisers. Some of the advisers indicated that they would prefer more time in the classroom, i.e., a more traditional teaching assignment (Bodle 1993). This desire may be enhanced by the fact that not all student media advisers have the luxury of tenured or tenure-track positions. A 2014 survey of the College Media Association revealed that two-thirds of the participating college media advisers were tenured or in positions that could lead to tenure, but still 38 percent were not (Kopenhaver 2015).

So, with job insecurity looming over more than a third of college media advisers, advisers may find themselves walking a tight line of preserving students’ freedom of expression—a tenet of the College Media Association’s code of ethical behavior—and maintaining their own livelihood. In “Prevention of college media adviser firings,” Kleinberg Biehl (2015) wrote, “If students get lazy or allow quality issues to sneak in or if they do things for shock value, make sure they know they are putting the school paper and possibly your job on the line.”

Quality certainly refers to issues of accuracy, and the CMA’s personal code for advisers states that “Advisers to student media must demonstrate a firm dedication to accuracy, fairness, facts and honesty in all content of the medium” (College Media Association, n.d.). However, with textbooks perhaps not fulfilling their informational duties and the pressing need for information literacy in both the consumption and production of news today, it is imperative that we understand how college media advisers teach accuracy to their students.

With limited attention paid to this critical issue, in this study, we seek to explore how advisers of collegiate news media talk about accuracy and teach accuracy to their students.

Method

Focus groups “can provide an open, supportive environment” and “can be a useful exploratory tool to start looking at under-researched areas” (Braun and Clarke 2013). While this research was based on focus group methodology, because of its limited duration and small participation, we refer to it as a “guided discussion.”

For this research, we sought permission from the executive director of the Associated Collegiate Press to propose a guided discussion session at ACP’s 2017 midwinter conference in San Francisco, California. With her permission, a session proposal was submitted and accepted. The guided discussion was also approved by the institutional review board of the researcher’s university. The session was described as follows:

This advisers-only roundtable will serve as place for advisers to discuss how they talk about accuracy with their students. Previous research has found that despite being the foundation of journalism, accuracy is given relatively little coverage in popular news writing textbooks. As such, particular focus will be paid to how advisers and educators teach the concepts of accuracy, fact-checking, etc. Session will be recorded as a part of research project on accuracy.

As this was a part of a larger conference, all participation was completely voluntary. Participants had the ability to choose to attend this session or others. Additionally, participants were given an option to participate in the discussion but ask that their comments not be included in any research related to the guided discussion.

Participants

In total, 11 individuals chose to attend and 10 actively participated, though all consented to have their comments included. There were four male and seven female participants. The average female age was 48 and the average male age was 45. Four-year public colleges and universities (5 participants), four-year private institutions (4 participants), and community colleges (3 participants) were all represented (one participant reported working at both a 4-year institution and a community college). Circulation sizes were as small as 300 per issue and as large as 20,000 per issue, with one web-only organization. Most of the advisers were also instructors and “news writing” or “reporting” were the most common classes taught, but there was a broad range including “literature and war” and “visual rhetoric.”

The session was restricted to the length of the time designated by the convention, so the discussion lasted approximately 48 minutes. The discussion was recorded and the principal investigator also took notes during the session. The principal investigator transcribed the session after the conference and a second reader was brought in. A general inductive approach (Thomas 2006) was used, in which the investigators independently reviewed the transcript, noted common themes and discussed them. The discussion allowed for a reduction of categories and themes. In this sort of inductive coding,

The intended outcome of the process is to create three to eight summary categories, which in the coder’s view captures the key aspects of the themes in the raw data and which are assessed to be the most important themes given the research objectives. (Thomas 2006, 5)

From this guided discussion, the common themes related to accuracy are as follows:

  1. Accuracy is a fluid concept
  2. Advisers are most interested in concrete tools and practices that will help them ensure both accuracy and academic integrity
  3. Journalistic integrity and academic integrity are intertwined.

Findings

As seen in previous research with senior editors, student news media advisers struggled to provide a concrete definition of what it meant to be accurate. Indeed, the discussion began with a participant asking the moderator to define accuracy. While one participant provided an answer, “I would define it as being correct and truthful, and attributing the information to an original source. That’s it,” others seemed to suggest that accuracy was more indefinable. One discussed how a person could say something, and though it was true that the quote was said, the content and information of the quote might be untrue. She said, “[if he says that I have] two horns growing out of my head. Just because he said it, is it truthful?” She argued that that there was a deeper, more conceptual level of accuracy that differentiated from concrete practices of accuracy.

The participants appeared to be more invested in those concrete practices that would lead to accuracy. For example, one participant talked about coaching her students through a controversial story. She said, “You’ll get as close to the truth as possible the more people you talk to and sometimes accuracy is never actually getting the absolute truth, but getting enough interpretations of the truth that you can get close enough.” A male participant said something similar, “Sometimes the story can be accurate and incomplete.”  While the participants were hesitant to define accuracy, they were quick to connect the concept of accuracy to specific tools for practicing accuracy, such as fact checking. In fact, the bulk of the discussion ultimately turned to discussing concrete practices and assignments to assess accuracy, which relates back to the idea of information literacy.

Among the practices and assignments described, source checking was the most popular. Multiple participants referred to requiring contact information for sources. One participant described a “call log” that she requires all students to submit with their assignments to document students’ efforts to acquire information and where their information actually came from. Other participants expressed interest in this log and asked to see it. Another participant mentioned that she had previously implemented “accuracy surveys” in which she randomly contacted sources that student journalists had interviewed to see if they had been quoted correctly, if the student journalist had arrived on time, etc. However, she said that it was laborious and she ultimately gave up the practice, though she indicated she may bring it back. Other participants mentioned accuracy checklists such as the one devised by “Regret the Error” author Craig Silverman (Rempel 2013) and a version of the same that was enhanced by the late Steve Buttry, former director of student media at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University (Buttry 2011).

Perception of accuracy by sources was another common element to the discussion; while being accurate was the ultimate goal, several of the advisers discussed the challenges in being perceived as accurate. One talked about how sources created problems when they were quoted accurately, but in call backs or quote checks the source would argue “that that wasn’t what they meant to say or how they meant to say it.” But she also noted that students were hesitant to confront the source with recordings of the interview to prove that the quote was accurate.

In another accuracy/fact-checking assignment, one adviser suggested that students fact check a professional journalist’s article and if an error was found, the student had the responsibility of contacting the journalist to report the error. She said, “sometimes, you know, the reporter will get annoyed with that” but described the exercise as eye-opening because it showed students that professionals are not immune from making mistakes either.

As educators, the third dominant theme was related to integrity, which appeared to intertwine elements of both journalistic standards and academic norms. While accuracy was described as a journalistic standard, it was frequently linked back to academic achievement.

For example, while the call logs and source contact information were a means of verifying information from sources, they were also a means of confirming that the students had completed the work/interview process. One adviser said, “I tell [my students] if I see a red flag in the story, I will ask you to produce this person for me too, and that’s just in all my classes, and not just the student paper.” The adviser who recommended the call log also said that students who failed to complete the call log would lose points off their assignments.

Several of the advisers mentioned repercussions for inaccuracy. One said that in her syllabus she included a policy that said a factual error would result in an F on an assignment or story. She did give students and opportunity to revise and resubmit their work, but said that she would then average the scores, so having earned an F for inaccuracy in the first version, the student could not earn more than a C on the assignment. She said,

A lot of students hate it. Many of our students are saying ‘oh this is the first F of my life’ kind of stuff, which maybe it is, but it does have a shock value to it. But it is also has a value that they take away that they have to be more careful.

Other advisers used the threat of failure to promote accuracy. One adviser who had attended Northwestern University spoke of the “Medill F.” She said,

The Medill F… if you had a gross factual error, F, no redoing, nothing, you just got an F on that assignment.  And I mean, that stuck with me as a journalist. So that’s one thing. And I tried that at my school and it didn’t go that well.

That adviser worked at a community college and said that in general, she didn’t think her students cared as much about their grades and that the threat of a “Medill F” didn’t have the same punch for her students that it did for her. Another community college adviser said that she knew that a state university in her area—a common matriculation school—had something like the Medill F. While the adviser did not say whether she enforced the same policy in her own program, she said appreciated that the four-year university had that policy so she could “wave that in [her students’] faces.”

           Two different advisers also mentioned issues with plagiarism, which is both a problem with journalism ethics and an issue of academic integrity. While one mentioned it casually, the other reported multiple issues with plagiarism, but said that the greater issue was with the lack of communication from her editor in chief—he did not disclose the plagiarism problems to his adviser and she heard about the issue “through the grapevine from editors who actually do talk to [her].” This lack of transparency concerned her to the point of being in the process of devising policy.

Policies were common discussion points—failure policies, transparency policies, and corrections policies. In discussing transparency, one adviser disclosed that if her students fix an error online, they are required to post an editor’s note. She said she was particularly proud of the steps that her students took to resolve an error, going so far as to take down a story and repost it because the original URL generated by their content management system contained the error. Her requirement that students post editor’s notes prompted another adviser to discuss the role of corrections online.

The need to run corrections, multiple advisers said, often led to discussions of accuracy with their students. One adviser had an issue with a problematic use of the term “illegal aliens” and he and his students discussed that. He said,

We used that correction to talk about style a little bit. So, we messed up by not having our editor catch it, but we also used the correction as a kind of explanatory… We put it at the end… we also put it on Facebook and on social media, pointing back to the article with the text of the correction there.

In discussing corrections, at least one adviser realized her publication did not have a related policy. “We have a 34-page staff manual and I’m embarrassed to say we don’t have a corrections section in there, so I’m going to go add it,” she said.

Discussion & Conclusion

In summary, like many individuals in the field of journalism (Hettinga 2012), advisers seemed to experience some difficulty in articulating specific definitions of accuracy. They were more concerned with concrete practices and activities for checking accuracy, such as previously researched accuracy surveys and source checks. These activities frequently enmeshed both journalistic integrity and academic integrity. For example, while the call log recommended by one adviser served as a tool for documenting sources and allowing for editorial follow-up, it was part of the students’ grades and failure to provide those had consequences.

What this suggests is that advisers speak to their students about ways to be accurate rather than what it means to be accurate in a more conceptual way. There may be room for advisers to dedicate time to discussing accuracy as a more abstract obligation and journalistic credo. Especially as news media outlets come under fire, one way to distinguish themselves is by returning to foundational principles of ethical journalism, which includes a higher-level commitment to accuracy. As advisers push beyond practices for accuracy, and go further than merely tying the need to be accurate to a student’s grades, they may aid future journalists in better understanding their professional commitment to accuracy for the sake of the public. While corrections are possible and inevitable, a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth, and imbuing students with a sense of obligation to be accurate the first time will serve them in the profession.

Limitations and Future Research

This research is somewhat limited by the number of participants and length of the discussion, which was constrained by the conference setting in which it was conducted. Additionally, the participants self-selected their participation, which suggests that they already had an interest in the concept of accuracy and therefore may already be more likely to talk to their students about accuracy and accountability. These results are not intended to be generalizable to college media advisers at large.

Additionally, while a second coder aided in the preliminary analysis of the discussion transcript, the final analysis was limited to the principal investigator. Based on time constrictions, no additional validity tests, such as member checking, were possible.

Future research would include additional, more extensive focus groups with new participants to see if a similar focus on practice over theory was observed. A next step would also be to survey student journalists themselves to explore how they perceive accuracy, and where they report learning accuracy—from textbooks, instructors or advisers, in class or lectures, or through the practice of journalism in student newsrooms.

References


Kirstie Hettinga, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of communication at California Lutheran University. She teaches courses in media writing and editing and serves as the faculty adviser to Cal Lutheran’s student newspaper, The Echo. Her research addresses issues of accuracy and credibility in news media. Her work has previously been published in Newspaper Research Journal, College Media Review, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and Media Ethics. She earned her bachelor’s degree in print journalism and master’s degree in mass communication from California State University, Fresno and her doctorate in mass communication from The Pennsylvania State University.

Special acknowledgment goes to Laura Willits, who assisted with the analysis in this study.

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