Fred Brown on Accuracy, Verification and Sources

There is nothing more important for a journalist, nothing more ethical, than to come as close to “truth” as possible. That’s why this principle is the first in the code of ethics. “Truth” may be subject to interpretation – people have different ideas about the truth of almost everything, including the age of the Earth – but accuracy is less debatable. Accuracy includes quoting exactly what people say about such issues as the age of the Earth. The idea that journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work arises throughout this code, and it’s explained in more detail in the final major section: “Be Accountable and Transparent.”

Another lesson to take away from the basic language of this principle is that the most reliable information is information that you, yourself, have collected from original sources. That includes events that you have witnessed in person. Being an eyewitness can lend richness to a story – at an accident scene, for instance, you may have direct experience with the sights, the sounds, even the smells: A locomotive’s crumpled front end, a tanker truck ripped in half, the smell of gasoline and chlorine in the air. You can also count as original reporting the things that authorities tell you; you may not recognize the smell of chlorine but they will.

The caution implicit here is not to rely on others’ accounts of what happened without double-checking. This means don’t just pick up a few sentences from social media and give that information the same weight as you do other, more reliable information. If you’re using a tweet, for example, say it’s a tweet and identify the source; and if you haven’t verified the information, include as part of your early reporting that it has not yet been checked out.  As stories develop, more information becomes available. But don’t just pass along everything that you hear until you’re satisfied that it’s true – or if you can’t be sure, you must say so.

Fred Brown of the Society’s Ethics Committee