Why do journalists get it wrong?

Time after time surveys show that a lot of people who deal with journalists don’t trust them to accurately report the facts of a matter at hand. Why is that?

Contrary to the views of some of my clients, I’ve rarely encountered a journalist who deliberately sets out to present a false picture — but that doesn’t mean they often don’t get it wrong.

Why is that? Over the years on both sides of the journalistic fence I have come to the conclusion that there are a couple of core reasons for media inaccuracy. They relate to time and space.

By time I mean the minutes and hours that the average reporter has to get their head around what is often a complex issue or series of issues. If you don’t understand the basic facts, there is a very high risk that your translation of those facts into a story is going to be misconstrued or just plain wrong. That’s why, contrary to the cynical view of some journalists, media relations professionals play a critical role in breaking down complex issues and helping reporters to understand the fundamentals and the background. In my experience most reporters genuinely want to understand — but they simply either lack the intellectual capacity or the time required to master the subject at hand. That’s the reason why it can often be easier to deal with a specialist reporter — especially in an area like finance or business.

The second cause of inaccuracy relates to space that is the difficulty of taking a complex situation and distilling it down into 10 paragraphs without over-simplifying or failing to put the facts into context. Think about this example. A royal commission sits for 12 months to hear evidence into the cause of the Victorian bushfires and then the royal commissioner goes away for six months to produce an 800 page report. Johnny and Joanne Journo turn up, have 30 minutes to read the report and then compress it into a radio news report that lasts for 45 seconds, a TV script that runs for a minute and a half or a couple of columns in a newspaper. When you come to think about it the whole idea is pretty stupid — no wonder we get used to a media that often gets things wrong!

So – why I am saying all this? Understanding the constraints of the journalistic model is critical for companies and organisations preparing to engage with the media. You need to find ways to deliver your messages simply without over-simplification and breaking down into consumable chunks that can easily be converted into accurate copy — that’s journo jargon for what we call news.

Yes, there are aggressive, obnoxious and downright disgraceful journalists who fail to abide with the twin pillars of good journalism: fairness and accuracy. However, the vast majority want to understand and present the facts accurately — the easier you make their job, the lower the risk.