Getting it Right: A Passion for Accuracy
Have you ever been on the receiving end of journalism: the subject of, or even just a mention in, a news story ? Perhaps it was about a friend or relative. Did they get it right? Ask reporters and editors this question and you'll get a catalogue of misspelled names, misquotes, factual errors.
Surveys show that the public expects the news media to be accurate, even though people are less confident than they used to be that news organizations get the facts right. Accuracy is a mind-set, an attitude. The best reporters I know die a thousand deaths when they learn a story they wrote includes an error. Everyone makes mistakes, no one is perfect, but journalists must take great care to get it right. Otherwise they lose a news organization's greatest asset: credibility.
Accuracy is the goal; fact-checking is the process.
After tracking errors in The Oregonian of Portland, editors concluded that the three most frequent sources of error are:
- Working from memory.
- Making assumptions.
- Dealing with second-hand sources.
The way to achieve accuracy is to develop a system and adhere to it religiously. In "Newspaper Credibility Handbook," an American Society of Newspaper Editors study, The Oregonian's Michele McClellan spotlights several excellent approaches, linked in the accompanying sidebar. One of my favorite resources for improving accuracy is "44 Tips for Greater Accuracy," by Frank E. Fee. Jr., the Knight Professor of Editing at Ohio University. Aimed at copy editors, Fee's tips contain invaluable advice for reporters as well.
If you're having an accuracy problem, pay attention to three faultlines as you go about your job:
DURING THE REPORTING, take the extra seconds to read back the spelling of the source's name. Ask for the person's age. If you ask for birthdate and year, you'll always have the information needed to update an age.
DURING THE WRITING, consult your documentary sources -- notebook, printed materials -- as you're writing. If you don't want to interrupt the writing flow, make sure to put a mark reminding you to double-check it later. "CK" for "check" is the standard proofreader's mark. "CQ" is shorthand for "this has been checked for accuracy"; it is often used with unusual spellings, facts and figures.
AFTER THE WRITING, assemble all your source materials -- notebooks, interview transcripts, tapes, books, studies, photographs -- everything you've used to report and write your story. Then go over every single word in the story and compare it to the original source. It's time consuming, but you can sleep a little easier. On projects and even on daily stories, I made one printout just for names and titles, another for quotes, a third for other factual details.
Call your source back and double-check. If you're describing a financial transaction, a medical procedure or how a sewer bond works, there's nothing wrong with calling the source and asking him or her to listen to what you've written. Your obligation is to be clear and accurate.
Listen to the voice in your head. Whenever I made a mistake in a story, I could always go back to a moment where it happened. Usually it was an assumption I made or a question I failed to address. There is a moment of truth in writing where you can take either the accurate path or the inaccurate path.
I was obsessive about it, but in 22 years as a reporter, I wrote stories that had corrections appended only about a half-dozen times. That doesn't mean all my other stories were error-free.
Errors are the bane of journalists. As a new reporter, I used to keep my corrections in my top desk drawer; I wanted their presence to haunt me. Reporters who start their careers working for small-town papers learn an unforgettable lesson about accuracy when they make a mistake in an obituary and hear from the deceased's survivors. One of the disadvantages of the electronic newsroom is that reporters may not come into contact with the people they hurt with incorrect information.
Some magazines employ fact-checkers. They verify names, titles, ages, addresses and the gist of quotations in the story.
"Fact-checking is the stage in the editorial process where someone attempts independent confirmation of every fact in an author's manuscript before its publication," according to Richard Blow and Ari Posner, who described their adventures in fact-checking in The New Republic. It's a luxury that newspaper reporters rarely enjoy.
Most professional reporters know they must act as their own fact-checkers. If you get small things wrong, you won't be trusted with big things. What news organizations have to sell, especially now with technology giving anyone the opportunity to report news electronically, is credibility.
I don't think a story without some mistakes exists, including this one. Appalachian quiltmakers put mistakes in their work because, they say, the devil loves perfection, but the careful, responsible reporter tries hard to get it right.
How do make sure you get it right in your stories? Share your best tips for improving accuracy.