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Good journalists own up to their errors

Former President Donald Trump, who first coined the phrase “fake news,” has been gone from elected office and also from most major social media platforms for more than four months now.

Yet, those words — Fake News! — that make most journalists’ hair stand on end, still resonate around the country. Journalists at media outlets everywhere, including this newspaper, will tell you they still hear it frequently.

Elected officials and other sources — especially those who might not particularly like critical stories we write about them — have lots of ammo to use on the media any time we make an unintentional error in our reporting, whether it’s a simple typo or a more serious failure stemming from something like the race to hit a deadline or stay ahead of competing news organizations.

Any editor will tell you about the great pain that comes when mistakes end up in a news story. That’s only further aggravated when those errors are followed by cries of “Fake news!” or accusations of intentionally embellishing or reporting a story incorrectly.

Really?

News organizations like this one have nothing if we don’t have credibility. So, to imply that a reporter or editor has intentionally reported inaccuracies in order to make a source or story subject look bad is simply absurd.

Does anyone truly believe we would sacrifice the trust that our readers place in us for ridiculous, unprofessional reasons like spite?

When we do make mistakes (and, as human beings, we will), we own them immediately. We admit the error, we run a correction in print, and we correct the story in the online version.

That’s just how credible news organizations roll.

It was troubling when I read last week that three of the big boys in this business — The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC News –issued significant corrections on earlier reporting about Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.

The incorrect stories were released shortly after Giuliani’s office and residence were raided by the FBI. The searches were linked to a criminal probe of the former mayor’s business dealings in Ukraine and resulted in the seizure of several communications devices.

These media organizations had incorrectly reported that Giuliani had received a formal warning from the FBI about Russian disinformation. Those media organizations now are reporting that he did not receive such a warning.

Here’s the rub, though.

It’s no secret these three news outlets have been consistently and aggressively critical of Trump and his presidency.

When the perception exists that a media outlet is slanted in its reporting, then it becomes quite a challenge to ensure its readers or audience that an error on a story of this magnitude was unintentional. In this case, the perception might be further exacerbated because all three attributed this information to anonymous sources.

Sometimes anonymous sources are unavoidable to guarantee all sides of a complete story.

But, rest assured, even when a source is anonymous to the public, the name and background is known — or should be known — to the reporter and editor. And if the unnamed source is used, the person should be well vetted to ensure these kind of inaccuracies that shake a news outlet’s credibility don’t occur.

Undoubtedly, avoiding perception of news slant is a hard nut to crack. Based on countless conversations with readers, I’ve come to realize over the past several years that the perception of slant is in the eye of the beholder.

Frequently, I hear from readers who believe a particular story is too slanted to the left. Usually, I soon hear from a different reader who believes the same story is too slanted to the right. Doing our job means checking and rechecking facts. It means independently verifying any information and working hard to report all sides of every story.

At the end of the day, all we can do is put our best foot forward to report accurately and to be fair and balanced. And when we make a mistake, we must own it.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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