Even if your audience is not filled with muppets, it’s good journalistic practice to:

  • Never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them; and
  • If you’re reporting something that is clearly erroneous, do not leave it to mislead your readers; put the correction close to the error.

American journalist Fred Clark wrote a typically excellent piece over the weekend on the importance of following these rules, with an illustration of how failing to do so can be destructive (seriously, the whole post is worth reading, but I’ll just quote the example he gives):

A friend of mine works for another paper where he handled the birther story this week. The lead and first dozen or so paragraphs of the story were reaction from local tea partiers to President Barack Obama’s getting Hawaii to release the long form birth certificate to supplement the legal certificate they give every other Hawaiian citizen, and which Obama had already released to great fanfare back in June of 2008. The story mentioned that earlier release of the normal birth certificate, but only briefly and way, way down in the story. So he moved that vital piece of information up toward the top, closer to the many quoted assertions from the tea partiers that the president ought to have responded to their questions sooner. That got him in hot water with his bosses, who moved that information back down to the nether regions of the story because, he was told, he should assume that readers were smart enough to know that already.

The result was an article that allowed a false assertion — Obama never released this information before — to go unchallenged for more than a dozen paragraphs. That’s a violation of one rule (proximity between misstatement and correction) based on reasoning that violates another rule (never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them). The result, in other words, was a story that elevated misinformation and diminished the correction — a story that will likely end up reinforcing the ever-mutating fantasies of birtherism and after-birtherism.

I don’t have any specific examples from this week of this sort of thing happening in Australia, but it clearly does, and it’s something for which we should be alert, and ready to call attention to when it happens.

ELSEWHERE: Possum (from Pollytics) and Rev Mountain note the consequences of a media that really doesn’t care about actually informing its readers of facts: a confused population that feels very uncomfortable about the things it suspects it doesn’t know:

As Possum says, that’s a real media fail.

UPDATE: Further evidence that people will miss details in the middle because – banana – they skip to the end.

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