As a student journalist working for my high school and college newspapers, I learned basic reporting from a strict rulebook. I can still recall my truculent resentment at one particular rule: why did we have to include the middle initial whenever we mentioned somebody's name? What a pain to have to ask for it each time! What an invitation to introduce a trivial error!
On one level, of course, the middle-initial rule was, even then, a pretentious holdover from a bygone era of compulsivity, and today those lonesome capital letters are less and less commonly seen in print and on the web. But there was a sensible rationale for the practice -- one that's worth remembering today, at a moment when the public's faith in journalists' ability to get simple facts right has tested new lows.
When I'd complain about the bothersome middle-initial requirement, this is, roughly, the lecture I'd hear from my editors:
"If you have to ask your sources for their middle initials, you'll also end up double-checking the spelling of their names. That's good. And when readers see that you've taken the trouble to put that little detail in, and get it right, they'll figure that you've been equally conscientious about all the other facts in your story. That's even better."
In other words: the middle initial didn't matter much in itself; it was a pledge to the world that you were willing to sweat the small stuff -- and therefore that you could be trusted.
Little Faith in Media
I was thinking about those middle initials as I read the dismal findings of the most recent Pew Research Center survey of Americans' attitudes toward the news media. It seems that our collective faith in the simple competence of news professionals is at its lowest level since the Pew folks began tracking these numbers 25 years ago.
"Just 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight," Pew finds, "while 63 percent say that news stories are often inaccurate." And only 21 percent of respondents said they think news organizations are "willing to admit their mistakes."
Michael Kinsley has maintained that public dissatisfaction with the media stems more from ideological fervor than from discontent with "trivial" errors of fact. But I think Kinsley is too quick to discount the cumulative impact of the vast number of small mistakes that go uncorrected every day in the media. The correct spelling of any particular name, or the inclusion of an accurate middle initial, may be a "trivial" matter -- but what if it's your name or initial?
Journalists ought to stop making excuses and pay attention to what the public is actually saying, rather than what they want to hear. This isn't about red state/blue state partisanship or the imperiled newspaper revenue model, or any other excuse that journalists might try to summon in their own defense. It's about the very survival of the news profession.
At a time when the traditional business of media is embattled and the Internet is upending old patterns of creation and distribution, journalists have staked their future on a promise of professionalism and reliability. "We're more trustworthy than any random person with a cell phone or a blog," they're saying. Meanwhile, though, the public is saying to the newsroom, "Sorry, we don't buy that. We don't trust you to get things right."
That's quite a disconnect. And I don't think it will be fixed by more rhetoric and debate. If journalists are to win back the public's trust, we need something a little humbler: a more open and effective process for correcting mistakes, however trivial -- one in which journalists can expect to hear about their goofs in a civil fashion, and the public can expect to see results once they point out a problem.
That's what we have in mind as we begin the work of building MediaBugs, an experimental public forum for the reporting and repairing of errors in news coverage. There's still a ton for us to learn, and I'll be writing here, as well as at the MediaBugs blog, about our findings.
While we won't ask participants to use their middle initials, we will, I hope, share some of the passion for detail and accuracy that drove that venerable custom.