Never let the truth get in the way of a good story? The cost of factual errors in TV

August 10, 2015 by Megan Burnside

Mistakes can occur on any medium: in print, online and on television.  When a factual mistake is made in broadcast media, millions of people may form an instantaneous view of a person or organisation that is based on incorrect information.

newsA nation of TV lovers

As newspaper readerships continue their long-term decline and the sources of news and debate on the web become ever-more complex, broadcast television remains an important source of information for millions of people.  The latest studies have shown that while there has been a small decline in the number of TV sets per household, more people than ever are watching broadcast television thanks to the rise of tablets and mobile devices.  On average, viewers in the UK watch more than four hours of television per day – an increase of almost half an hour since 2006.

With increasing numbers of people relying upon news and information from TV broadcasters, the need for accuracy is becoming more – not less – important.  Yet the increase in the number of broadcasters has led to tighter commissioning deadlines and increased pressure on researchers.  Mistakes creep in and, when they do, broadcasters can face censure by the industry watchdog, Ofcom, and fines in the courts.

Costly mistakes for errors

Earlier this year, Channel 4 was criticised by the regulator for its coverage of the Ellison review into possible police corruption around the Stephen Lawrence case.  A section of a programme about the cast featured a reporter interviewing members of the public about the case.  While Channel 4 presented the interviewees as having been chosen at random, Ofcom found that all of them had, in fact, worked for a company that the interviewer had also been employed at.

Two years ago, Ofcom severely criticised the BBC and ITV for editions of Newsnight and This Morning which led to Lord McAlpine being wrongly implicated in allegations of sexual abuse against children.  Newsnight broadcast claims about an unnamed "leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years" at a time that the peer was the subject of intense internet speculation.  Meanwhile, Philip Schofield handed Prime Minister David Cameron a list of alleged abusers during a live broadcast of this morning and Lord McAlpine's name was clearly visible.

Both the BBC and ITV had to pay substantial libel damages to Lord McAlpine after he sued them.

Dedicated researchers

Fact checking may be time consuming and expensive but it can save hundreds of thousands of pounds and a programme's reputation by enabling such mistakes to be avoided.  A number of broadcasters and TV production companies now use dedicated researchers to check the accuracy of sources and output.

Researchers at the National Geographic, for example, are employed to investigate every detail contained in a programme.  Sources are re-interviewed, locations featured in the programme are visited again and documentary sources rechecked.  Both Channel 4 and The Discovery Channel are now using researchers in a similar way.

Knowing who its journalists and producers are working with is becoming increasingly important for broadcasters.  LexisNexis tools can significantly improve a TV producer or company's ability to conduct adequate due diligence and reduce the risk of broadcasting a costly mistake.

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