Getting It Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age

The Persistence of Error

As the old saying goes, to err is human.

None of us is perfect, nor is the work we produce. Still, we strive for perfection, trying to get it right every time. That's what professionals do. But the truth is that errors are a byproduct of journalism. You can't produce journalism without also producing mistakes.

This reality was acknowledged even in the early days of publishing and reporting. When Benjamin Harris wrote a prospectus outlining his plans for what would become the first newspaper in the United States, he included this expression of the inevitability of error and the importance of correction: “... nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true ... and when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next.”

That was in 1690. We have made many advances since then in both newsgathering and verification, yet errors persist. This is because mistakes are the result of a variety of factors: human behavior and interaction, the tools we use, the way we create and produce reporting, the sources journalists rely on to provide information.

Decades of research into the way humans process information and deal with misinformation and propaganda show that humans are more inclined to believe things that are in line with their existing views — even if proven truth contradicts their beliefs.

Whether the error is an embarrassing typo showcased on the front page, a factual error during a major broadcast or an incorrect claim made in the early stages of a breaking news story, mistakes seem to be inevitable.

Only now, as opposed to what happened in 1690, our mistakes spread far and wide in a matter of seconds. They are amplified by social media, cached by search engines and stored in databases.

The price and persistence of error makes it more important than ever that we bring tools, techniques and best practices to bear in service of error prevention. And that we do our best to uphold that simple contract outlined by Harris hundreds of years ago: prevent mistakes as much as possible, and correct our mistakes publicly and with speed.

The good news is that this course will equip you with the knowledge and tools to prevent factual errors, sniff out mistaken information and hoaxes and present your work in a way that makes facts more persuasive than comfortable lies.

British Medical Journal

“It is often the best people who make the worst mistakes — error is not the monopoly of an unfortunate few ... far from being random, mishaps tend to fall into recurrent patterns. The same set of circumstances can provoke similar errors, regardless of the people involved.” — James Reason, author of "Human Error."