Angela Anderson and the importance of accuracy

When Angela Anderson spoke to our class on Tuesday, the most salient point for me was also the very first I ever learned as a journalist. Accuracy. 

It almost sounds cold to think that accuracy was the main thing I took out of the talk, but it seems that journalists affected Angela more with an inaccurate claim than with anything else they wrote.

So the takeaway should be short and sweet: don’t mess up, because if you do, you might further hurt an already grieving person. But I think the situation is a little stickier than that. Basically, journalists took a highway patrol worker’s statement as fact, and this is what hurt Angela, because it led to victim blaming, more or less.

So what should the journalists have done, in retrospect? Fact check with the highway patrol? They probably did that. I worry that journalists might not have understood the weight held by their claim that the dock lacked a ground fault circuit interrupter — I don’t know that I would have — which is why they probably never even thought to pursue fact-checking options past the state officials in the first place.

I guess this is the first improvement to make as journalists: understand the importance of details that could imply fault on behalf of the victims. And even if the victims truly were at fault, I think a discussion must be held about when and how to present that information. You have to balance the importance of informing readers so they avoid similar mistakes in the future and adding blame to the list of the victim’s troubles. 

But even if the journalists were sensitive to all this, what exactly should their course of action have been? I view this dilemma as coming down to this: Do I A) take the word of the highway patrol and realize that there is potential victim-blaming at stake or B) verify with the family whether or not the highway patrol is correct? Now, maybe there’s a third party that could have helped a journalist avoid this problem, but for the sake of this argument, let’s pretend their was no one but the family who could verify this claim. It’s a tricky scenario. It seemed like the media was having a hard time getting in touch with the immediate family, as other family members were doling out “no comments” without Angela and her husband’s knowledge. Furthermore, while the journalist would be fact-checking to avoid an unfair victim-blaming scenario, by asking the family that question in the first place, they risk upsetting the bereaved.

I think this is a tricky spot to be in, and I’m not surprised journalists just parroted the highway patrol report. Angela was upset by the misinformation in the articles regarding the GFCI, but how do journalists avoid that mistake without upsetting her or her family in the first place? It’s a tough question (which is why I chickened out of asking it in class), and I’m not sure what the answer is. I suppose the wrong information would be more harmful in the long run, but it doesn’t seem like an fun position for a journalist trying to fact check that claim while remaining sensitive to the victims.

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