Getting the name right is about as basic as it gets for a journalist.
We’ve all had the letters from readers, listeners and viewers. ‘If we can’t trust you to get the simple stuff right, how can we trust you on anything else?’
They’re right, of course. But with some things, it’s more than simple accuracy. Military terms, for example. Get the name of the dead soldier’s regiment wrong and you’re not just a fool, you’re disrespectful. Ditto with ranks. And even more basic terminology; not all the British troops in Iraq are soldiers, for example.
So when one prestigious BBC news outlet referred to a Royal Navy cruiser as a ‘cruise ship”, or when a report went out on a live and continuous news channel renaming the Royal Anglian Regiment the Royal ‘Anglican’regiment (not once, incidentally, but several times) viewers were, justifiably, angry.
But what it is that we educators have to do to make sure young journalists get this sort of thing right?
Part of the problem, of course, is the changing nature of the job and the changing demographic of the trade. Not many years ago, the senior journalists in charge of drumming accuracy into their apprentices had direct experience themselves – through National Service, at the very least – of the military. The terminology had a presence with a special relevance in newsrooms in the Seventies and early Eighties with reporting from Northern Ireland.
Few senior journalists now have that experience. And many fewer young journalists than a generation ago learn their trade under the persistent cuffings of an intolerant task-master on a local paper.
At the same time, style books and an acquaintance with Google should be all any journalist needs to get any terminology right.
One of the things going wrong is the growing perception among new entrants to the trade that you can be a journalist by doing no more than processing the information in front of you. And it’s a perception that’s not going to change much. Financial pressures on news organisations, the primacy of ‘first and live’and the time pressures created by multi-platform journalism all pull very strongly against the most basic instincts of the good journalist.
It’s tough for educators, but it’s more necessary now than ever that young journalists understand two of those most basic instincts. To fear inaccuracy. And to be curious.
Inaccuracy in journalism is indefensible. It’s an even greater crime to process an inaccuracy – from wire copy or earlier content – without questioning it. But questioning comes from curiosity – and curiosity from an eye, ear and mind tuned to what doesn’t seem to hang together. The impetus that drove Woodward and Bernstein was no different from the impetus to be right, find out for yourself, check.
Getting sensitive terminology right, questioning and checking for yourself isn’t just part of a journalist’s commitment to accuracy – it’s also the first step in developing the habits that make journalists great journalists.
Kevin Marsh is editor-in-chief of the BBC’s College of Journalism