Last week was a strange one for media accuracy.
First, Us Weekly published a feature, noticed by Jossip, that poked fun at the inaccuracies of its competitors. Yes, a celebrity weekly used accuracy as a competitive differentiator. This is not all that new; even media outlets that traffic in gossip or are known for getting things wrong need to maintain a semblance of accuracy.
The early English newspapers of the 17th century made a habit of printing fantastic tales about massive serpents or gigantic births, and they also spent time boasting about their commitment to truth and accuracy. Just like Us, they needed readers to buy their next issue and so credibility mattered. The Accuracy Boast -- a strident, usually empty claim of credulity meant to reassure readers -- is meant to vouch for the tales that lay within; it's supposed to make readers feel better. Mostly, though, it comes off more as an exercise in self aggrandizement by the publication.
And so one wonders why Us would paint a bullseye on itself by bragging about its accuracy, especially in a media environment where one can summon up their mistakes at a moments notice. Like, oh, this:
Or maybe this (from Jossip):
Or this from The New York Post's Page Six:
ON Dec. 28, we reported that Steve Bing went on a "dinner date from hell" with Pamela Anderson. The item, based on a report by Us Weekly, was wrong. The date did not occur. We regret the error.
And why not one more:
In some early editions of the July 18 issue, Us Weekly inaccurately reported that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were adopting a baby boy together. Her new daughter is, in fact, a girl, and while Pitt was present when Jolie signed the adoption papers, he himself was not a party to the adoption. As the magazine went to press on the night of July 4th our reporters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia were continuing to report out the story. By the following morning we learned that we had made these errors and stopped the print run in order to correct the story. However not all issues were corrected in time.
As one can read from the above correction, Us' claim is that it makes more of an effort than other tabloids to confirm information. It's saying that, in the world of gossip weeklies, Us Weekly is the least inaccurate. (For any grammar hounds out there, we chose that poor phrasing on purpose.) The best of the worst.
(At this point it's necessary to note that Craig Silverman, the editor of this site, once spent a day and-a -half as a stringer on assignment for In Touch. That was roughly four years ago, and it was a one-time assignment. He also once bought a subscription to Us Weekly for his girlfriend. Maybe that evens things out.)
Says Us: "We don't say that we don't make mistakes; that is the nature of any news gathering operation. What we don't do is wholesale fabricate stories to sell magazines." Ah, so their failures are just the result of poor reporting, not malicious intent. The difference does matter in the grand scheme of things, but in the world of celebrity gossip weeklies, it almost seems an insult to readers to try the Accuracy Boast as a selling point. People know what they're buying.
...Speaking of Accuracy Boasts. Lou Dobbs was profiled on 60 Minutes on Sunday, and he uttered one of most ridiculous lines regarding accuracy we've ever heard. One of the biggest Boasts of recent memory. After being confronted with an inaccurate statistic used on his show (something CNN defends as being accurate), Dobbs told Leslie Stahl, "Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it's a fact."
"You can't tell me that. You did report it," Stahl replied.
"I just did," Dobbs said.
"How can you guarantee that to me?" Stahl asked
"Because I'm the managing editor. And that's the way we do business. We don't make up numbers, Lesley."
Dobbs was likely trying to make a statement about the standards he upholds on his his show. But the assurance that, "If we reported it, it's a fact" is one of the most hubristic, laugh-out-loud statements we've heard in a long time. It's the quintessential Accuracy Boast: in defending the accuracy of his work he makes a statement that's wholly incorrect. No publication, news show or type of journalism is 100 percent accurate 100 percent* of the time. Claiming total accuracy is an error in itself.
Both Us Weekly and Dobbs seem to greatly underestimate their audiences. Us thinks its readers view the magazine as a serious journalistic enterprise that makes different kinds of mistakes than its competitors; Dobbs thinks people will believe he's infallible. Both should have shown a bit of humility and honesty and ditched the Accuracy Boast.
*Correction May 8: This number was originally written as "1100 percent." While this serves to prove the point of the sentence, it is ultimately a sad mistake born of sloppiness We regret the error.