Improving Accuracy: Creating a Newsroom System
Faced with the additional challenges to accuracy presented by online publishing, eight newspapers in southern Brazil are working to identify and avoid their most common errors. The efforts of RBS Group newspapers -- a multimedia communications company -- are part of what has been called an "accuracy packet," despite its judicious name: the Error Prevention Project.
The packet is filled with simple but useful practices brought to light by American and Brazilian professionals. The introduction to the packet is a singular handbook made by Pedro Dias Lopes, one of Zero Hora's most distinguished editors. Zero Hora, which is owned by RBS, is a regional newspaper with a daily circulation of 175,000, located in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. The most visible part of the project consists of:
- An online database application through which every correction published in the eight newspapers is recorded, explained and classified. Here is a copy of the translated sample form. With minor adaptations, the form is a Portuguese translation of the form the Chicago Tribune uses. To turn it into a Web application, Zero Hora has sought help from an unqualified programmer -- me -- without spending a single dollar (or a Real, our actual currency). Fortunately, the Web 2.0 revolution provides us with some useful, free online applications such as Zoho Creator.
- An internal campaign to encourage checking for the five most frequent types of errors:
- A Manual of Procedures and Error Prevention, containing particular procedures that must be observed in each sector of the newsroom. It's the way through which a journalist entering the newsroom discovers, for instance, the peculiarities of writing an obituary -- what must be checked carefully, what sources are considered reliable when writing obits (e.g., "only trust first-degree relatives for basic information about the dead person.")
This last initiative, the manual, is also the work of Lopes. A bold and innovative producer, Lopes started counting corrections in 2004. Based on the most common errors, Lopes proposed standards for checking and editing. His self-developed standards became so important that they were extended to the whole newsroom and, in time, to other RBS Group newspapers.
In 2007, the standards were compiled into a handbook. The manual has been distributed to the newsrooms of Zero Hora, Diario Gaucho and the other RBS Group newspapers. Larissa Magrisso, a young politics reporter, has approached me to say that the manual and training have changed the way she organizes her work. She has learned, she said, that accuracy has a lot to do with concentration and that it's best to avoid multitasking when reporting a story.
Most of the breaking news on zerohora.com, staffed by 32 people in our integrated newsroom, is published minutes after reporters hang up the phone, with almost no formal editing. For this reason we felt that it was even more important to make sure journalists use proper reporting techniques to ensure accuracy.
Due in part to his work with the manual, Lopes was named executive editor of zerohora.com. His new role forced him to transfer the program to other hands, and that was when I took over. To continue in Lopes' footsteps, I decided to ask for help. This was how I first spoke with editors from The Poynter Institute, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Brazilian papers. Some books have also been consulted, such as Philip Meyer's "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age."
Given what we learned from those contributions, we decided to put our corrections records online. Since January, the same form used in eight newsrooms helps us identify patterns of corrections that may give direction to future checking standards, seminars and training.
We got a taste of the integration results when we reclassified old registration records of Pioneiro -- another RBS newspaper that circulates in the mountain region of Rio Grande do Sul -- using the standardized corrections classification. The result was not surprising: the five most frequent types of errors were the same as what we found in Zero Hora.
As we work to increase awareness of accuracy in RBS Group newsrooms, we're following up with some of the people interviewed for articles to gauge their perception of errors in what gets published. That measurement is possible because of Zero Hora's Precision Research, which addresses questions daily about accuracy to interviewees.
The next steps are already being planned, and reporters are continuing to be trained -- again, with contributions from all over.
What are the most common errors in your news report? What measures are proving most effective in reducing them? Please respond in the Feedback section for this article.
If you have further questions about this project, e-mail Eduardo Lorea.