How Accurate are Bay Area Newspapers?

Joseph Pulitzer once said the three rules of journalism are “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!

The namesake of journalism’s most prestigious prize would likely approve of major Bay Area newspapers. A Grade the News spot check of 66 sources quoted in three of our largest newspapers finds the sources are overwhelmingly pleased with the accuracy and context of their published quotes. Sources also almost unanimously said reporters got other facts in the story right too.

The results represent good news for an industry worried about its credibility. A recent survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors estimates that 73% of Americans have become more skeptical recently about the accuracy of news. In that survey sources were even more critical of reporting practices than the public at large.

But the sources we spoke to seemed almost surprised at how carefully the three newspapers we analyzed reported their stories.      

Asked to rate the accuracy of direct quotes and paraphrases attributed to them in specific stories that were read back to them, sources gave the Bay Area newspapers almost perfect scores. On a 5-point scale of accuracy, with 5 being “very accurate,” the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News tied at 4.82; the San Francisco Chronicle averaged  4.74. All three papers scored at or above 95% of a perfect score, solid “A” work by any measure.

Grade the News analyzed all front page and local news display page stories written by the newspapers’ own reporters on one day and the local news display page on a second day for each paper. We attempted to call every source residing within 100 miles of San Francisco, a total of 151 persons or organizations. The more extensively sources were quoted, the more we pursued them. We reached 69 sources, three of whom declined to be interviewed. The survey was conducted in August.

“I’m just delighted to hear that,” Jerry Roberts, managing editor of the Chronicle, said of the results. In the last three years, he said, “we really toughened up our corrections policy. We now print corrections every day. We’ve tried to heighten the consciousness of accuracy.”

John Armstrong, editor and vice president for news at the Contra Costa Times said, “Beginning in 1999 we launched an accuracy initiative that involved every member of the staff.” As much as newspapers attempt to be accurate even despite deadline pressure, he noted, even the New York Times runs corrections almost daily. Representatives of the Mercury News could not be reached by posting time.

More than the quotes were accurate

Not only did reporters get the direct and indirect quotes right in the Grade the News analysis, they were rated almost as highly for other facts in the story and for choosing the main points of the sources, rather than peripheral remarks. Reporters did similarly well spelling the names of sources and accurately describing their titles.

Where sources did point out inaccuracies, most rated them as minor. The most frequent serious complaint involved headlines overstating or sensationalizing stories. A developer expressed disappointment that a Chronicle headline characterized a planned six-story office building in East Palo Alto as a “tower”. A San Francisco artist said she felt marginalized when the Chronicle placed her most flip quote—about letting “your freak flag fly” above the headline.

Only one source claimed a reporter had made up a quote. A directly quoted source said a Mercury News reporter had not spoken with her. The reporter, however, insisted that she had notes of the conversation and the source conceded that perhaps she had spoken to the reporter and not remembered. A second source quoted in the same story called the reporter “meticulous.” (It is our policy not to name journalists accused of unprofessional practices without substantial evidence.)

Ironically, many sources expressed an almost generic skepticism of journalists’ accuracy, but then gave very positive reviews of the story in question. One source, Sgt. Gary Tolleson of the Oakland Police Department, said many stories about gun control are biased: “More sources are quoted on the gun control side, and the dumbest, most extreme quotes are used for gun advocates.” But that wasn’t true, he added, of a Mercury News story about a new gun control law in Oakland that we asked him about.

Perhaps sources’ general assessment of journalists’ accuracy is colored by experiences with reporters from television and newspapers not included in this survey. Paul McCarthy, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol in Redwood City, told of a Peninsula newspaper assuming that a man arrested for a DUI (Driving under the Influence) was drunk. The Mercury, however, called back to learn the driver was high on drugs. “They’re one newspaper that takes the time to call and clarify if they’re not 100% sure,” he said.

Sources often praised reporters from the three papers sampled. “She really worked that story; she must have called back three times to check things,” said Jay Leonhardy of a Mercury article by Sandra Gonzales. “She actually tries to understand what you’re saying,” said Dean O’Hair of Contra Costa Times reporter Shawn Masten. Times reporter John Hill was praised for tape recording his interviews.

New emphasis on accuracy and corrections

The Chronicle’s Roberts says 15 years ago most newspapers used to be much more cavalier about accuracy. In many newsrooms the policy was “don’t correct anything you don’t have to. It was a badge of shame to have to correct something.” Newspapers have since discovered that readers consider papers that publish corrections more credible than those that don’t.

The Chronicle runs corrections on page A-2. Contact Deputy City Editor Allen Matthews (415-777-8890; amatthews@sfchronicle.com) if you think you’ve seen an error. The Mercury also runs corrections on the second page of the front section. Contact Assistant Managing Editor David Tepps (dtepps@sjmercury.com). The Contra Costa Times runs corrections on the back page of the front section; call 925-943-8128.

Caveats

The Grade the News sample is small so results are suggestive rather than conclusive. No margin of error is appropriate. It’s possible more careful reporters happened to be covering the major stories on the days we sampled. However news organizations usually enforce similar standards for all of their reporters. Further, accuracy is such a fundamental characteristic of journalism that every story should exhibit it. Thus even a small sample may serve to suggest the news organization’s toleration of sloppy or inaccurate reporting.

Grade the News also hopes to measure the accuracy of local newscasts. Such a study presents greater logistical obstacles, due to technological differences between television and print.

-- John McManus

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