Accuracy and clarity are two of the most important principles of journalism, but at times the effort to achieve one of these goals can get in the way of the other. What does it take to accomplish both?
Critical thinking is key, says Scott Libin, a former TV news director who now teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota. He recommends asking this question when what seems accurate may actually be less than clear: “Is this the best way we can characterize [something] based on the facts we have?”
Consider the phrase “officer-involved shooting.” Why do newsrooms use it and what does it really mean?
At the 2019 Excellence in Journalism conference, a local TV anchor argued that using the phrase, which law enforcement also uses, indicates that a police officer shot at someone. But other journalists contended that “officer-involved shooting” doesn’t make that clear. It could just as easily mean someone shot at an officer.
“You need to get more information to make a better judgment on what to say,” said Terence Shepherd, news direcor at WLRN, the NPR station in Miami. Either way, Libin said, the phrase is clumsy. “Would you say ‘dog-involved biting’?” he asked.
Using the language your sources use may be technically accurate but unintentionally misleading. Listeners might be forgiven for thinking that a company touting its “fair hiring” practices was simply complying with equal opportunity laws. In fact, “fair hiring” means considering job candidates without first asking them if they have a criminal record.