Accountability: Who, Whom?

Dr. Eckel’s Advice for Informational Integrity in an Era of Mass Misreporting

Each morning The New York Times “The Morning” email is delivered to my inbox. Each morning I scan the news the Old Gray Lady is willing to print. I realize going in that there will be a certain slant to the coverage. One event will be promoted for observation, another will be unobserved altogether. A further point of obvious reference is the analysis of events. Everything is interpretation. I do not begrudge The Times its point of view as much as I may disagree.

But “The Morning” on January 10th gave me cause to pause. A word I would wish to see more often in journalism was announced: accountability. The author, David Leonhardt, said it was “time for an annual exercise in ‘pundit accountability’.” He tells us the phrase was first used by David Weigel, now of The Washington Post. I cheered the acknowledgement: a newsperson willingly accepted responsibility for his words. Leonhardt used phrases such as “self-accountability,” “there is no shame in being wrong,” and “few are willing” to admit their mistakes. He even used the word “sins” to describe part of the journalistic culpability process.

Covid-19’s “unpredictable” nature was Leonhardt’s first acknowledgement about his reportage. He is now trying to absorb the lesson of “uncertainty” as it relates to science. About “waning immunity” from the virus, Leonhardt wanted to “avoid automatically assuming the worst.” He uses the word “misplaced” to reference early “Covid alarmism.” Leonhardt suggests “ominous signs are worth heeding,” though he gives no attribution for his assertion. He further stressed that “quality of data” was important. Shifting to economics, Leonhardt now tempers his views on inflation noting in retrospect that “things change.”

A summary of the whole “accountability” issue comes to the forefront when Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, is quoted, “I think it’s really important for the media and for other institutions like the C.D.C. to build trust by being honest about when they got things wrong.” Over the last two years, the public has had to endure more dogmatism than dogma. There is a difference between stating a belief and preaching a belief. It is nice to see those journalists such as Leonhardt and Thompson use words like “trust,” “honest,” and “wrong.” Humility exists in those words. There is care for how the public is treated in those words.

Returning to the original title of Leonhardt’s article, however, it would seem the public should not have to wait for an “annual” review to receive corrections to build confidence in journalistic delivery. Here is a list of ideas and questions that ought to be top priority in journalistic accountability.

  1. Information we have at the moment may well change over time. Caution should be taken in making declarative statements.
  2. Misleading information in the moment, repeated over days and weeks, becomes misinformation.
  3. Words such as “might,” “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “possibly” would be useful in moderating and modulating the writer’s point of view.
  4. Be careful not to ascribe blame to a person or a political party for something that has scientific origins. Science reflects observations of the created world. Human observations change.
  5. If a news organization knows that certain information is contentious, the media should bend over backwards to make sure it has considered all perspectives in equanimity.
  6. How much of the individual writer’s political persuasion goes into the journalistic enterprise? How are the people treated in the written opinion with whom the writer might disagree? What adverbs and adjectives are used by the writer for those views for which they disagree?

Why is accountability in journalism or any enterprise important? We are finite and fallen human beings. Our powers of understanding are besmirched by our own biases. We stumble over our shortcomings. Each of us has our perspectives altered by our reading, watching, listening, and scrolling. Some refer to our “sins,” as Leonhardt acknowledges, as “the human condition.” Whatever moniker we wish to suggest for our trespasses, we should double down on our care for words. If our perceptions of life are changed by the points of view we hold, journalists should make their accountability pilgrimage a weekly, not a yearly, affair.

has taught junior high school through PhD students over four decades, in both Christian and public education contexts. He has a Master of Theology in Old Testament, PhD in Social Science research, and just finished another Master’s in English. He is a book review editor for Christian Education Journal. Mark has written or contributed to nine curricula and books. He has also authored scores of peer-reviewed journal articles and encyclopedia essays, and maintains online writings at www.markeckel.com.

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