Accuracy and verification in the digital age: the human factor in errors

If you ask a journalist how a particular mistake occurred, you might hear, "I was rushed and didn't check." Or, "I made a typo.”

These are valid reasons, but they pertain only to a specific incident. To think an error is something we alone cause or control is to ignore the larger systems and factors at play. Saying that you were tired, rushed or sloppy doesn't give you the information you need to truly understand why errors occur — and to prevent making them.

The human factor is one reason errors occur. Our brains play an undeniable role in the mistakes we make. Here are a couple of ways that happens and how you can guard against these mistakes.

  • Stress, including the stress of deadline pressure, can send our brains into fight-or-flight mode. This primal state triggers the release of endorphins and adrenaline, which can enable us to respond to threats. But it also makes focusing on details difficult. This is not the best time to recall the precise statistic you heard or attempt a close rereading or self-edit of a story or script.
  • The way we process language can lead to mistakes. We often confuse opposites without realizing it, or we hear different words or sounds from what was actually said—anticipation errors. When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the media suffered an epidemic of "Obama/Osama" errors, where journalists intending to say "Osama" said "Obama" instead. Here's how Michael Erard, author of "Um … : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean" explains them: “The speaker has anticipated the 'B' of 'Bin laden' and moved it up to replace the 's' in Osama. That is an anticipation error, where there is a string of sounds and the person basically jumps ahead in the string and selects one sound too soon and inserts it."

Taken from Getting It Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age, a self-directed course by Craig Silverman at Poynter NewsU.

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    Vicki Krueger

    Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current position as marketing communications manager.

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