« The Fog Index | Home | Making the Best Possible Use of Facts »

Readers Ill-served by Inconsistent Facts

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:03 PM

Do you check your own content for factual consistency?

By William Dunkerley

It's common practice for editors to fact-check an article's content with authoritative external sources. But what about checking for consistency in the facts that you report within your own pages? Are you doing that?

What brought this issue to my attention was a recent Washington Post news story. It told of a Russian journalist who was on the receiving end of a heated tirade from his country's top investigative official. The incident followed a story that the journalist did that criticized the official's agency. Initially the journalist felt that his life had been threatened. But then the official apologized for his ill-tempered outburst and assured the journalist of his safety. The publication's editor was quoted saying "reconciliation has taken place." The article seemed to indicate that the matter had been settled.

But then three days later, the Post cited the same incident in an editorial that urged the U.S. Congress to "punish the Russian abusers." This was an example, claimed the editorial, of the Kremlin "cracking down on Russians seeking democratic reform or fighting corruption."

What's a Reader to Believe?

This all left readers to wonder which was the case: Was it a story of a hot-headed Russian bureaucrat's meltdown that had been resolved to the satisfaction of the parties involved? Or was this an incident indicative of a top-down effort to thwart democratic reform and preserve corruption? Did it really require punitive action from the U.S. Congress? The news story claimed one set of facts, the editorial, the other.

The Post's own facts seemed to be at odds with themselves. Did the Post's news staff miss an overarching angle of unresolved high-level government media abuse? Or did the editorial writers miss the fact that the incident had been settled satisfactorily? What were readers to conclude?

I wrote to the Post's editors about the disparity. They didn't reply. I also wrote to the paper's ombudsman in connection with this article. I invited comment on whether he believed that a reader disservice is created by inconsistent content that is presented in a publication, citing the Russian incident as an example. He didn't answer, either.


Editors generally focus on consistency. We use style manuals to provide uniformity in our content. We use layout grids for organizing text and images. We follow grammatical guidelines, too. In a sense, consistency is an underlying fabric of a publication. It helps readers to comprehend content. Inconsistency can result in confusion.

Of course, there are times when presenting inconsistency is intentional. One example from the archives of Editors Only dealt with the question of whether language should evolve over time or be preserved in the status quo. There are two sides to the issue. We ran side-by-side articles in a pro-con format. One article was written by a leader of an organization dedicated to language preservation. It advocated, for instance, keeping new and trendy words out of the vocabulary. The other article was by the chief editor at Webster's, who described how the dictionary evolves based on usage, with new words being incorporated into it all the time. The pairing made for an interesting contrast and gave readers something to think about.

Opinion roundups are another genre where consistency is not the objective. Indeed, lively disagreement makes for interesting reading!

But in these examples of disagreeing content, we're talking about presentational formats that make clear to the reader that there are some things in dispute, whether they be facts or opinions.

The Post's Downfall

Perhaps that's the trap the Washington Post fell into. They didn't present their disparate "facts" as a "you decide" proposition. First the story was one way, then it was another. And there was no commentary to explain the change.

The news story was well sourced and included relevant quotes. The editorial presented allegations as if they were facts, and provided no substantiation.

Elsewhere in this issue, Peter Jacobi writes, "[The facts] are your gift to those you mean to serve." Perhaps the Post was serving a master other than its readers. Their coverage of the story in question was clearly no gift to the readers.

Your Gift to Readers

The example offered by the Post with its Russian story is one of what not to do. Consistency in the representation of facts is as much a service to readers as are matters of style, design and grammar. It is important to differentiate between facts, opinions, and allegations. And when facts are in dispute, readers will be well served if you make that clear at the outset. If you apply these precepts consistently, you will be giving your readers an unquestionable gift.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

Add your comment.

« The Fog Index | Top | Making the Best Possible Use of Facts »