Students offer new rules for accurate journalism

In a column last year for Columbia Journalism Review I tried to put some journalism cliches to good use by offering a series of tips and rules to help journalists create accurate work. The idea was to boil accuracy advice down to the essentials, and I ended up with a list of eight rules. Here are three of them:

The initial, mistaken information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction. I’ve started calling this the Law of Incorrect Tweets. The point is to emphasize that a piece of misinformation is often far more appealing and interesting than the subsequent correction. People are therefore more inclined to retweet or like a false news report than to pay attention to any subsequent correction. Be careful with the information that gets pushed out, and be diligent about repeatedly offering a correction. This is especially true with social media, but the principle — invest time in spreading corrections — is universal.

Verification before dissemination. Our job is to apply the discipline of verification to everything we gather. That means checking what a source tells you before putting it out there. It means holding off on that hot bit of news to make an extra phone call or bit of checking before sending it out. It’s the core of what we do. Too often we are enticed by the glory promised by dissemination. Which leads me to my next rule…

People will forget who got it first, but they remember who got it wrong. Scoops are almost never as impactful and glory-filled as they seem. Apart from Woodward and Bernstein, who were turned into Hollywood characters, how many other journalists are widely known among the general population thanks to a big scoop? I would wager very few. But names like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke seem to endure in the public’s mind. So too do the names of news organizations who push out false or incorrect information about a big story. For example, how many people had heard of the show “What’s Trending” before CBS pulled its backing over an erroneous tweet from the show? When you sacrifice verification for a scoop, you set yourself up to win the worst kind of glory.

After that column appeared, I heard from Sue Burzynski Bullard, an associate professor of journalism at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She found the column useful for her Beginning Editing class. That was great to hear. She also used it as a tool to spark interesting responses from her students.

Bullard asked them to read my column and suggest additional tips for doing accurate journalism. Her students came up with some good additions, and Bullard sent along her favorites. I promised to share them a while back and was delayed in putting them into a follow-up post. Below is Bullard’s selection of the best responses from her students. What tips would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

Kelsey Baker:

One rule I would add is a rule I learned in my science and industrial tech classes: measure twice, cut once. It’s important to always check your measurements because you can only cut once. It’s important to always check your information because you should only have to print the story once. It would be nice to not have any mistakes.

Jacob Sorensen:

Another rule that could be added to the list is ‘Keep it simple.’ Journalists too often have a solid base for a story, but want to reach out and make an assumption, or throw in a random fact to make a story longer and seem more factual. This often creates confusion. If you don’t have the information, don’t use it. It’s better to be safe rather than sorry. Report the facts you know.

Paige Cornwell:

One rule I would add for doing accurate journalism would be to start a story assuming nothing. While it is important to do research before a story, often reporters will think they already know the answers to their questions, which can prevent accurate reporting. Journalists should never make assumptions when writing and they shouldn’t assume when reporting, either.

Emily Walkenhorst:

Don’t get caught up in a source. This includes never printing the source’s jargon or only the source’s side of things. They may be telling the truth, but they’ll never get close to telling all of it.

Frannie Sprouls:

One rule I would add to Silverman’s list is leave your beliefs and opinion at the door, no matter how difficult it may be. The public is not looking for your opinion; if they are, they should head on over to the editorial section. News is about presenting the facts to the public, not twisting the facts so they fit your opinion and beliefs.

Emily Deck:

The writer should always keep in mind that he not only represents himself but also the paper, his city and his state. Don’t make journalism a joke.

Kayla Stauffer:

Another rule to help journalists stay accurate is that they should read their stories backward. When you do this, words often stick out more individually, and you are less likely to race over an incorrectly spelled word or name. Instead of seeing the piece as a whole, you see it word-by-word, and this often helps me fix a handful of errors.

Bethany Schmidt:

My ninth rule to tack on with Craig Silverman’s is ‘don’t trust your gut.’ That is the opposite of what we are usually told to do in tricky situations, but in the world of journalism, trusting your gut and getting it wrong is not acceptable.

Abby Schipporeit:

The rules I would add to Craig Silverman’s list would be to have a passion for reporting accurate news. …You have to have some kind of passion or fire inside you that makes you want to do a good and accurate job.

Brianna Foster:

The rule that I would add to Silverman’s list would be to simply ask questions. When in doubt, it is important to ask questions about details that are unclear.

Cristina Woodworth:

A 9th rule I would add on would be to be aware of your biases so that you can keep them from interfering with objective reporting.

Asha Anchan:

Another accuracy tip I would add to Silverman’s list is, spell check doesn’t cut it. For me, sometimes I rely on the genius of my computer and it lets me down. Instead, I should become a better self-editor so I can quickly weed out the mistakes my computer overlooks.

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  • Anonymous

    This is troubling, because practically all of these suggestions are among the basics of journalism: check facts, don’t rely on your own assumptions, ask questions, be aware of bias, beware of spell check. If these are things students realize should be taught, but which they aren’t learning in a basic reporting class, I have to wonder what kind of a journalism education they’re getting.